For a little over two hours, with a twenty-minute interval, the West Australian Opera (WAO) company regaled the audience in the grand old His Majesty’s Theatre. A product of the Opera Conference, Australia’s national partnership of professional opera companies, The Pearl Fishers was sung in French (with expurgated translations on screens either side of stage) and accompanied by the WA Symphony Orchestra, conducted by WAO Artistic Director Brad Cohen, and the WA Opera Chorus.
Georges Bizet’s first full-time operatic commission, before he went on to create the masterpiece Carmen, Les pêcheurs de perles was created in the 1860s. The libretto is a continuous musical drama, never linking numbers with spoken dialogue. In it, two friends are torn asunder by their love of the same woman.
Set in Ceylon (British-owned Sri Lanka) during pearl diving season, the bearded and stony-faced Zurga (2008 WAAPA graduate Sam Roberts-Smith) rules a village there. When his old friend, the great hunter Nadir (Jonathan Abernethy), arrives they reminisce about a girl they both once laid eyes upon and fell in love with. This very girl, Leila (Emma Matthews), then arrives in the village, now as a veiled priestess who has vowed to pray for and protect the villages’ pearl divers. As part of her vow, she agrees never to be distracted from her task by love, a promise she breaks to be with Nadir – betraying the villagers’ trust in her. Understandably angered, the superstitious peasants discover Nadir has interfered with and disrupted their ritual by pursuing Leila, which she has reciprocated, and they turn on the couple savagely. It is Zurga, who feels betrayed by Nadir, who must save the day.
Robert Kemp’s colourful, textured, exotic, visually rich set and costume design was at the helm of this production. With old ruins overtaken by sand and sea grass framing the action, and the main male cast in English formal wear and Leila and the villagers in saris, each component excels and is the masterpiece that imbues this old work with life.
A muted affair with little action or time for character development, Act I is entirely exposition, and it is only in Act II when we are able to enjoy an aria from Matthews, Australia’s most highly awarded soprano. Leila’s role is a complicated one, as she battles masculine control and limits upon her sexuality but ultimately is at fault for discarding her duty.
Directed by Michael Gow, WAO’s final production of 2016 was well-received, and the enthusiastic applause upon curtain-fall highlighted the audience’s evident pleasure in the performance.
Words by Samuel J. Cox
The Pearl Fishers ran at His Majesty’s Theatre end of October & early November.