Submitted by Simon Parris on Monday, 9th May 2011
Date of Show:Saturday, 7th May 2011 (All day)
Everpopular classic The Pearlfishers makes a welcome return in an interesting production that highlights an alternative take on the central love triangle.
Such is the following of golden star soprano Emma Matthews that fans might turn out in droves to hear her sing a football theme song. Fortunately, the exquisite music here is far more refined.
The role of Léïla does not give Matthews much of a chance to flex her considerable acting muscles but there is plenty of ravishing music for her to sing. Out from under her veil at the beginning of act two, Matthews has the audience spellbound with her superb ornamentals in “Me voilà seule dans la nuit”. Her pianissimo trills and runs demonstrate the human voice as a true instrument.
For all the gorgeous music she has to sing, Matthews does not have the hit duet of the opera, “Au Fond du temple saint”, which belongs to two of her three talented male co-stars. Most productions treat French Governor Zurga (Luke Gabbedy) and young Indian Nadir (Henry Choo) as best friends who have fallen in love at first sight with the same priestess, Léïla. Director Ann-Margaret Pettersson has taken the extra verse of the famous duet and expanded the theme to treat Zurga and Nadir as possible male lovers who were divided over Nadir’s attraction to Léïla.
The exotic action in India is presented as Zurga’s reminiscences of a fateful time that left him to grow old as a lonely man, not unlike Ennis del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain”. The opera that prompts his recollections is seen several times, the gilded proscenium arch and glowing footlights of the Paris Opera House magically floating in the background.
Given the decision to interpret the men’s feelings as more than friendship, it is somewhat disappointing the envelope is not pushed further. This is not helped by a lack of chemistry between Choo and Gabbedy.
In all other respects, the revival is pristine. Set and costume design, by John Conklin and Clare Mitchell, complement each other perfectly to create a vision of shimmering cobalt blue with occasional fiery red. Mighty images of Brahma represent the importance of prayer and devotion. Nigel Levings’ lighting creates a myriad of effects, adding layers of beauty to the staging.
Gabbedy is a tall, handsome Zurga with a commanding presence. In excellent voice, his work in act three’s “L’orage s’est calmé” was particularly impressive. Taking on the majority of the revised focus of the story, Gabbedy’s performance is characterised by his sensitive acting.
Choo sings with sweetness, his dulcet tenor blending effortlessly in duets with both Gabbedy and Matthews. Jud Arthur, expertly made up as the high priest Nourabad, demonstrates the power of his rich, sonorous bass voice for the second time this season.
Maestro Ollivier-Phillipe Cunéo keeps tempi brisk, leading Orchestra Victoria in a lush rendition of the beloved score. Chorus preparation by Michael Black is outstanding, with each piece given a majestic performance by the glorious Opera Australia Chorus. French diction is impressively clear on the whole.
The capacity audience at Saturday’s matinee were thrilled with The Pearlfishers. The beautiful music and attractive staging would make it an ideal introduction to opera for newcomers. Performances continue at the State Theatre until 16 May.
Photos: Jeff Busby