Les pêcheurs de perles, composed when Georges Bizet was 25, has a spotty reputation. It features a pair of perennially popular numbers, but many seasoned opera-goers dismiss it as an immature work with a paint-by-numbers libretto. The writers themselves, Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, admitted that their Orientalist mash of pagodas, veils and fakirs was inadequate. The plot, like that of Bellini’s Norma, features a love triangle quadrangled by religious vows. Both chief pearl fisher Zurga and hunter Nadir are in love with Leïla, a Hindu priestess who swears to protect a village in Ceylon with her chaste prayers. Like Norma, the opera ends in a conflagration, but it is the village that burns, not the sacrilegious lovers. His love unrequited, Zurga commits arson to allow Leïla and his old friend Nadir to escape the vengeful mob. Bizet’s love music is sheer melodic genius, but the most entrancing melodies occur in the first two acts; the dramatic climax in Act III is considerably less inspired. Nevertheless, its great lyrical beauty has earned the work a place in the repertoire.

Kishani Jayasinghe (Leïla) and Robert Davies (Zurga) © De Nederlandse Reisopera
Kishani Jayasinghe (Leïla) and Robert Davies (Zurga)
© De Nederlandse Reisopera

The Nederlandse Reisopera’s production does away with Oriental specifics and concentrates on the interaction between the leads, dressed by Elena Warner in patchwork costumes with vaguely Asian silhouettes. The chorus of villagers wears contemporary clothes. Wikke van Houwelingen’s set surrounds the characters by the elements that rule their lives, its main feature being a cloth backdrop curled like a wave. A full moon shines on Leïla and Nadir's night of love and a twelve-disc sun blazes on the morning of their disgrace.

Timothy Nelson's staging comprises several good ideas that, mainly through overuse, often get in each other's way. A large net, dragged, twisted and wound throughout the performance, represents the emotional entanglement of the main characters. Three athletic dancers double the ménage à trois, pushing and rolling off each other in a mix of traditional Thai steps and Western modern dance. The dancers worked best when they gave shape to the singers' emotions in the public scenes, by pulling them apart, for example, but were less effective when echoing the singers during the arias and duets. The concave backdrop encompassed the trio's inner life: in it they sometimes revealed their feelings instead of being their public selves. Unfortunately, the visual clues signalling entry into this inner space were not always clear. Leïla arrived at the village unveiled and tenderly kissed both Nadir and Zurga, visualising the men's past encounters with her, real or imaginary. Since Zurga only discovers Leïla's identity after she betrays her vows, this scene created plot confusion. The inner space concept was most successful when the soloists were physically separated from the chorus, who had little to do except stand in rows, such as when the villagers appeared as shadows behind the curved curtain.

Kishani Jayasinghe (Leïla), Robert Davies (Zurga) and Jesus Garcia (Nadir) © De Nederlandse Reisopera
Kishani Jayasinghe (Leïla), Robert Davies (Zurga) and Jesus Garcia (Nadir)
© De Nederlandse Reisopera

The vocally gifted young leads all gave deeply felt performances. As Leïla, Kishani Jayasinghe was vocally alluring, though her singing was uneven. She had the requisite agility for Leïla’s runs and trills, but expressive passages such as her strong “J’étais encore enfant”, in which Leïla narrates how she once saved Zurga’s life, suggested that slightly heavier lyrical roles would suit her voice better. Natural acting and sure intonation characterised the Zurga of Robert Davies. The very top sounded a little gravelly, but the rest of his securely produced baritone was even-toned and capable of refined mezza voce singing. Mr Davies was particularly moving in his big aria, "L'orage s’est calmé", his dramatic poise almost overriding a stage direction that had him representing the lovers with his hands like a puppeteer. His expressive finesse blended surprisingly well with the Italianate fire of Jesus Garcia’s Nadir, not least in their reminiscing in “Au fond du temple saint”. Mr Garcia possesses a beautifully-timbred tenor with plenty of volley on top. At times his tone spread under dramatic pressure, but his combination of voice and temperament is the formula that produces exciting lyric tenors. The promising bass-baritone Yavuz Arman İşleker, a member of the Reisopera talent development programme, acquitted himself ably as Nourabad, the high priest.

However, the foremost contribution to the evening came from the pit. Conductor Benjamin Levy limned Bizet's musical colours in a reading that unfurled like a bale of silk. The North Netherlands Orchestra played for him as if they were born for this music, sweetly atmospheric in the romantic scenes and rhythmically taut in the bouncy choruses. Even in the drama of the raging storm the playing remained lithe and graceful. Mr Levy maintained firm control of both orchestra and the youthful-sounding National Opera and Concert Choir and gave Bizet the greatest tribute–­­a performance during which his melodies could work their heady magic.

***11