Premiering at Opera Australia in 2000 followed by a stint at Melbourne’s Arts Centre, this production of Georges Bizet’s oriental fantasy is revived in the 2012 season for a reason. Besides featuring one of the most popular arias in the opera canon (really – it was voted number-one in ABC Classics’ 2006 poll), it’s got everything a drop-in punter could want or expect from an opera experience: an exotic location (Ceylon), a love triangle with a dash of bromance, religion and politics thrown into the mix, some dance numbers, and plenty of bling in the set design department. And at less than two-and-a-half hours (including two intervals), you’ll be in and out before you know it.
Swedish opera pro Ann-Margret Pettersson and her design team leave modernity and political correctness at the door, and throw themselves into the fantasy realm of the original, which was written circa 1863 by two French librettists who had been inspired as much by the prevalent European notion of Oriental sensuality as by a contemporary guidebook of the region that described the religious rituals and customs of the Indian pearl-fishermen.
The two men at the heart of the story, the elder Zurga (Andrew Jones) and his former protégé Nadir (Henry Choo, reprising his role in the previous two seasons), declare their undying commitment to each other and eternal bond of friendship, before squaring off over the dame in question – the virginal priestess Léïla (rising young soprano and one-to-watch Nicole Car), who they both simultaneously fell in love with long ago, and who reappears in the coastal village where the two men have freshly reunited. Talk about timing. Pettersson adds a potent shot of tragedy to the mix by framing the action in the memory of Zurga, a troubled old man looking back regretfully at a defining moment of his life.
This is quite simply an enchanting concoction. The Pearlfishers is not one of the major works in the canon – and it pales besides Bizet’s better known but equally melodramatic Carmen – but it’s extremely enjoyable, from its irresistibly romantic score and memorable motifs (say what you like about the ‘Au fond du temple saint’ duet – Nadir’s solo aria in Act 1 is a real sweet spot, provoking more than a few hushed gasps from the audience), to the major chorus set-pieces, scenic tableaux and dance interludes. Pettersson and co deliver all this in a ravishingly beautiful and dynamic staging that keeps you constantly engaged by what is essentially a fairly frothy experience.