Originally published 13th July 2012 at http://bachtrack.com/22/296/view/1417
Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, written some ten years before Carmen, does not enjoy as much recognition as the latter opera. Composed at the age of 25, the opera received harsh criticism from many contemporary critics, although not from Hector Berlioz, who clearly recognised something of Bizet’s genius in the work. Many people know the celebrated Pearl Fishers’ Duet from Act I; however, the rest of the opera is also a treasure trove of lyrical writing, endearing melodies and simply beautiful music. This was brought to the fore in Opera Australia’s production, which was full of colour and a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
The opera tells the story of two friends, Zurga and Nadir, whose friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman, Léïla. The two friends renounce their love for her, realising that it could threaten their friendship. However, after some time, Nadir and Léïla are reunited and fall in love. They are condemned to death by the jealous Zurga, only to be saved by Zurga at the opera’s conclusion, when he realises that Léïla once saved his life.
The opera does not require a big cast: just four principal characters, one of whom – Christopher Hillier – was making his Opera Australia debut, in place of the indisposed Andrew Jones, who was suffering from a throat infection. The cast very much complemented each other and were perfectly suited to their roles. Hillier excelled in the role of Zurga, producing a seemingly nerveless performance on his debut. He sang the part with authority and conviction, equally at home in the more tender parts of his role, such as the famous Act I duet, as in the more despotic moments such as in his condemnation of Léïla and Nadir. I am sure we will be seeing a lot more of him in the future.
He was well matched to his friend, Nadir, played by Henry Choo. I felt that Choo captured the essence of this role perfectly. Choo had a great intensity in his expression, as if he was possessed by the character of Nadir, beautifully portraying his longing for Léïla. He displayed much colour in his tenor voice, particularly in the opera’s more intimate, reflective moments. His aria in Act I, “Je crois entendre encore”, is one of the most beautiful arias in the opera and is consistently soft and high in the voice. Choo sang it with a wonderful, silky tone, full of emotion, making it one of the highlights of the evening. The duet with Zurga in Act I was also a wonderful moment: the differing colours of Hillier’s baritone voice and Choo’s tenor sound blended sinuously. More often than not, there is a good reason why melodies from operas become famous, and this is undoubtedly a moment of compositional genius from Bizet. The aria is sung when Zurga and Nadir affirm their friendship. This melody returns throughout the opera, perhaps as a reminder of this friendship once so strongly pronounced.
The part of Nourabad, the high priest of the island, was sung by Jud Arthur. I have heard him before in similar authoritative roles, such as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni and Sarastro in The Magic Flute. He possesses an incredibly round, resonant bass voice, which is perfectly suited for such roles. He was very convincing playing the part of Nourabad, adding to the character the necessary seriousness and an impressively weighty sound. Also very effective was Nicole Car, who played the part of Léïla. Like Choo as Nadir, she portrayed her character with great emotional intensity. She sang with clarity and a beautiful pure tone, which almost served to highlight her naïve helplessness as she falls in love with Nadir.
The four principal characters were very ably supported by the Opera Australia Chorus, who looked resplendent in their bright costumes. They added real power and drama to proceedings, particularly at the end of Act II, when the love affair of Nadir and Léïla is discovered. The choreography was relatively simple, which matched the clear, unfussy set. However, this just served to make the production more effective, as everything seemed to have a purpose and helped to focus the attention on the drama and the music. This was all excellently accompanied by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, who played with sensitivity and precision all evening. This was a great production of a beautiful opera, sung by a perfectly matched cast.