Left – Sam Roberts-Smith and Jonathan Abernethy. Photo – James Rogers
Michael Gow's production of The Pearl Fishers, running at His Majesty’s Theatre, is an admirable attempt to put Bizet’s “other opera” (Carmen generally considered the composer’s masterpiece) back in the limelight, and makes use of the exceptional orchestral and vocal talent of the consistently exceptional West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), as well as soprano Emma Matthews (Leila), Sam Roberts-Smith (Zurga) and Jonathan Abernethy (Nadir).
Certainly, there is some validity to the criticisms levelled against The Pearl Fishers in general. It lacks the character development of Bizet’s Carmen (along with its plethora of memorable arias), however it is certainly not without its merits, and Michael Gow has made an enjoyable production, regardless of his chosen material’s limitations.
A brief recap for those not familiar with the tale: Zurga (the first player in our doomed love triangle) is designated the role of Headman of the village when one of his oldest friends Nadir returns from a protracted absence. The two men reassert their eternal friendship in a duet which has eclipsed the entire opera itself – the much loved "Au fond du temple saint.”
Enter Leila, a woman whose singing, the villagers believe, will protect them from the evil spirits of the sea. Leila’s voice reawakens a sense of longing in Nadir, and he begins to suspect that this is the woman for whom he and Zurga shared a mutual love, a love which had previously caused a rift in their friendship.
When Nadir and Leila are discovered late at night, mid-passionate embrace, Zurga is informed, and his love for Leila (and ensuing fury) cause him to sentence the pair to death. In the end, however, he reverses his decision, sealing his own fate by ensuring that the two escape from the village unharmed.
It’s a tale as old as time – a love triangle ending in tragedy (depending on who you’re rooting for, that is), however it is given new birth by three vocalists who capture all the emotional turmoil of unrequited love, betrayal and ultimate redemption which gives The Pearl Fishers its peculiar gravitas.
Special recognition should be given to Jonathan Abernethy, who flew in from Berlin at short notice to take on the role of Nadir (John Longmuir, originally billed to play Nadir, was forced to withdraw on doctor’s advice). While the age gap between him and Leila was felt at first, it wasn’t long before their genuine onstage connection made such initial observations redundant.
Incredible also was Emma Matthews who captured the torment and emotional distress of the compromised Leila, caught between her duties to the villagers and her love for Nadir. It’s rare to see a vocalist who is so adept at singing (glass-shattering high notes were hit in her Act Two solo, along with the execution of some dizzying vocal acrobatics) while also being able to inhabit their role so fully and with such commitment.
All in all, The Pearl Fishers is an enjoyable ride, and under Michael Gow’s direction, adequately equipped to silence any lingering criticisms of Bizet’s “other opera.”
West Australian Opera presents
The Pearl Fishers
Venue: His Majesty’s Theatre
Dates: 25, 27, 29 October & 1, 3, 5 November 2016
Tickets: $42.85 – $178.45