If Turandot is mainly known for the über-famous “Nessun dorma”, then Bizet’s Pêcheurs de perles has (with less injustice) been synecdochically reduced to the duet “Au fond du temple saint”. Were this number better known by name, it would surely have formed a core part of Opera Australia’s advertising campaign: even Bizet himself milked the Act I theme for all it was worth, bringing it back frequently throughout the course of the opera. The Pearl Fishers doesn’t have many other memorable tunes (in glaring contrast with Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen), while the weaknesses of the plot are patent – too much backstory, and too little action. Gems of exchanges like “I’ll sing for you, the one I love” / “Keep singing, I love you” will give some idea of the level of the libretto. There was only so much that fine singing and beautiful sets could do to redeem the inert dramatic spectacle, but if one moderated one’s expectations accordingly, there was still much to enjoy.

The opera libretto was originally set in Mexico but was changed during the composition to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), here realised impressively in Robert Kemp’s sets. Ruined fortress walls, arched temples and colonial indoors were alternately bathed in fierce tropical daylight or lit by the moon. Bizet’s score too provides a kind of unspecifically ‘oriental’ colouring in places such as the sinuous oboe line before Nadir’s off-stage serenade in Act II.

This new production by Michael Gow created a strong colonialist narrative out of the plot: the principal male characters (love rivals Zurga and Nadir, and the sinister Nourabad) all wore European 19th-century garb, while the chorus and female lead were dressed in more typical ‘native’ gear (saris, leis, etc.). Two loin-cloth-wearing male dancers wrestled and later fought with swords, in a desperate attempt to inject some action in the tableau-like crowd scenes. The character most changed in this reading was Nourabad: originally a high priest of Brahma, he was here reimagined as a somewhat brutal European overseer, manipulating the indigenous peoples and cynically exploiting their belief in the ‘goddess’, Lëlia. A non-singing actor took on the function of the priest instead. This production ended on a cliff-hanger, with the curtain falling as the self-sacrificing Zurga was approached from behind by dagger-wielding minions of a vengeful Nourabad.

One instance of the dramatic weakness of the opera can be found in the famous duet. This, the big romantic number, is sung not by lovers, but by the love rivals, reminiscing over a woman they saw years before. Since the object of their affections is a memory, the two singers were reduced to standing and gazing into the distance. This recalled the older (and thankfully defunct) tradition of ‘park and bark’, whereby singers stood in the footlights and sang with no consideration of the dramatic action. In the sort of coincidence that can only occur in opera, the veiled object of their affections enters only a few minutes later, unsubtly signalled to the audience not only by the recurrence of the duet theme itself, but also the original words “Ah, c’est elle! C’est la déesse” [Yes, that’s her, that’s the goddess], now sung by the chorus.

Whatever the problems with the plot, the singers were mostly first rate. Ekaterina Siurina was an outstanding Leïla – her pitching was very true, warmed by a discreet vibrato, and she showed a nimble coloratura when called for. Her solo arias were among the highlights of the performance. As Nadir, Pavol Breslik was the possessor of a warm tenor voice throughout its range (the top Bbs, although they sounded fine, were produced with seemingly greater physical effort). His initial embrace of Leïla was more violently possessive than romantic, further suggesting the theme of colonial exploitation. José Carbó, obscured by a bushy beachcomber beard, dealt well with most of the demands of the role of Zurga, with some great ringing top notes. I had some reservations with his decision to sing in an undertone on a couple of occasions – this can indeed be a magical effect, but for some reason it didn’t quite come off. Damiel Sumegi was a big-voiced Nourabad, and glowered to good effect.

The chorus play a prominent role in this work, and were generally excellent; my only reservation concerned a slight unclarity of their French pronunciation in some of the quickest numbers. Under the engaged and sensitive direction of Guillaume Tourniaire the orchestra sounded particularly polished, with good obligato playing from piccolos and horns at different times. The musico-dramatic material may have been slightly second-rate, but the performers certainly did their best to convince us otherwise.