Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers comes with mountains of baggage to contend with for anyone staging a modern production. In the 150 years since its première in Paris at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, the opera has navigated stormy seas to finally settle in the repertoire of world opera. Criticism has generally referred to the libretto’s poor quality and weak plot which lacks any attempt at bringing the characters to life. On this premise, and given the dilemma faced with stereotyping race (for which other recent local productions depicting foreign cultures have been criticised), presenting this work might appear a brave decision, but Melbourne Opera's new production succeeds with a tightly packaged, if at times bursting, and visually caressing production by Director of Productions Hugh Halliday. 

© Matt Deller
© Matt Deller

Though overshadowed by Bizet’s hugely popular Carmen (which premièred 12 years later in 1875), The Pearl Fishers is similarly infused with exoticism and passion, albeit in a more liquid manifestation. Set in ancient Ceylon, the plot has its pitfalls. But the passion surfaces with overwhelming clarity, focusing on the bonds of friendship, love and loyalty between two fishermen (Zurga and Nadir) in love with the same women (the priestess Leila, who herself has sworn an oath of obedience and chastity). Portraying these emotionally-laden, three-way inter-relationships is pivotal to a production's success. 

Halliday tenderly moulds the male-male relationship between Zurga (Phillip Calcagno) and Nadir (Brenton Spiteri) in a way that transcends mateship yet blots out overt homoeroticism. The balance achieved seems to work without wrestling with the plot. He also dramatically forges the tension and undoing between Zurga and Leila (Lee Abrahmsen) with steeliness. It is, however, the chemistry and conviction between Leila and Nadir’s shared love, as well as the abandonment of their respective vows, which weakens the structure built by the other two.

Driving the sensuality of the drama is Bizet’s music. On opening night, conductor Richard Divall embraced the score with care and measured the tempi thoughtfully. Under his expertise, the music from the 40-plus members of the Melbourne Opera Orchestra filled the historic Athenaeum Theatre with Bizet’s beauty: generously on the dramatic, voluminous passages but exposing occasional weaknesses on the lighter ones. The woodwind players and harpist especially stood out with fluent and expressive grandeur alongside the percussionists’ eruptions of boldness all the way down to their wiry delicacy. 

Brenton Spiteri as Nadir © Matt Deller
Brenton Spiteri as Nadir
© Matt Deller
Sung in English without surtitles, and with commendable diction, the three young principal soloists moved the drama forward exceptionally but for a few top notes lacking reach. As Zurga, Phillip Calcagno exudes pure charisma and solidity, displaying confidence and consistency throughout. Calcagno's burnished baritone, hyperbolically expansive sound and vibrato strength are potent. Brenton Spiteri's Nadir comes across as impetuous, a little cheeky and very likeable. Spiteri funnels the voice with vertical prowess and bright tone as his eyebrows engage with the power to entrance. Together with Calcagno's Zurga, the pair elevate the vocal framework with passion and gravitas.

It would be negligent not to comment on one of opera’s most recognised and rare male duets. Introducing a musical theme which returns often to develop dramatic completeness, Act 1’s “Au fond du temple saint” (In the depths of the temple), is memorable for two reasons. As Zurga and Nadir stand as stiff as cards two metres apart, front of stage and facing the audience, it was looking more like a recital. But when they recall their oath of friendship, through a performance of heartfelt alliance and vocal purity, they stand transfixed and impart a similar reaction in the audience. Its beauty is cemented as they complete their aria and turn to exit the stage with arms around shoulders. 

Perhaps nerves were holding back Lee Abrahmsen’s Leila, but her voice settled to display stunning versatility, characterised by sensuous, smooth coloratura, warm lyricism and both cascading and plummeting aplomb. Somewhat mechanical acting hindered her Act 1 entrance, giving Leila's character more a statuesque quality than of a young priestess with a rich past and a human heart. During Act 2, however, a welcome breeze in Abrahmsen’s performance energized the drama immensely, complemented with grace by her Act 2 aria “Comme autrefois” (As it was before). And from the moment he took to the stage from on high as Nourabad, high priest of Brahma, the thickset, bare-chested Eddie Muliaumaseali’i commanded with weight, assertiveness and a thunderous, resonating vocal bass. 

Depicting fishermen, priests and priestesses, the Melbourne Opera Chorus graced the stage with energetic but unforced acting. Vocally, however, it was ladies' night as the male chorus, when exposed, displayed difficulty in feeling and pitching opening phrases. I’m confident this can be overcome. 

Lee Abrahmsen as Leila, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as Nourabad © Matt Deller
Lee Abrahmsen as Leila, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as Nourabad
© Matt Deller
Though I wouldn’t normally conclude with what makes seeing opera in the theatre so special, I wish to leave you with the visually stunning impression it left on me. Designer Daniel Harvey’s simple but effective set of symmetrical lacework screens to frame the stage together with a large, stone, manoeuvrable multi-faceted plinth, equally takes depth, height and subtlety into consideration for the constraints imposed by a narrow stage. Add to that a smashing palette of spicy-hued turmeric, saffron, nutmeg and tangerine costumes of saris and sarongs. They might not have historical accuracy but they certainly couldn’t be thought offensive. Enhanced by Scott Allan’s seriously fine lightning from pinks, mauves and lucid blues to the depth of dark moody blues together with the use of fire-torches and incense to add to the sensual experience, the production's visual portrayal is praiseworthy. Melbourne Opera have safely made a small contribution to the work's indestructibility.

***11