State Opera SA
Adelaide Festival Theatre
Until 19 May 2018

Review by Thomas Filsell

As with the opening of many an opera, one sits in the darkness absorbing the emotional effect of the orchestral overture, anxiously awaiting the rise of the curtain to see whether one’s internal expectations aurally formed are satisfied visually by the design of the stage and the overall show.

In this instance, my own mental picture, my preconceived aesthetic expectations, were not met – the aesthetic result, however, achieved by Set and Costume Designer Robert Kemp, Lighting Designer Matt Scott, and Director Michael Gow, was so much warmer, more sumptuous, and ultimately more satisfying than anything I had expected to see staged that night. The deep blues of the sea and sky, the hot orange of the sand, and the earthen tones of the weather beaten, aged scenery, complete with pressure cracks and native greenery growing in the set’s stone facades, all formed a striking, balmy, convincingly exotic South Asian locale. Later scenes in the holy temple were especially satisfying both for their dramatic content and for the visual detail and splendour of the set design. The sea and sky turned to pitch as night fell and we found ourselves guided only by yellow specks of distant starlight - then, later, we were engulfed in the red and yellow of dancing flames and stricken with white shocks of lightning as tension rose in the latter parts of the libretto.

The costuming, too, aided narrative comprehension as there was a clear demarcation in the style and manner of dress between the island locals and the profiteering colonial principal characters in the production. The latter characters, chiefly Zurga and Nadir, have been reimagined in Director Michael Gow’s interpretation of Eugene Cormon and Michel Carre’s 1860s libretto, otherwise very much of its own time, as European colonists come to take advantage of the locals’ organic wealth and lack of educated sophistication. They, along with Nourabad – originally a religious high priest, here presented as a Bowler hat wearing, walking cane wielding, moustachioed Victorian industrialist type figure – wear clothing one would expect of typical wealthy continental European travellers from the 1860s – the period Gow chose to set the action in this production.

The locals themselves had the most vivid, colourful and appropriately exotic costuming, though a lot of skin was on show from the men which detracted from the notion that they were all local inhabitants born and raised in the same location because there was such great variation in body type, body hair type, body shape and tone. There was a lack of a certain degree of uniformity one might expect to see among tribesmen in a relatively undisturbed and previously uncolonized location. The moments when the locals, also the chorus, were all together on stage, however, whilst somewhat awkward and unnatural in terms of their staging (being clumped together, generally, as one great choreographed, synchronic mass, gesturing and moving as one), were the best for producing strong, emotional vocal crescendos that burst into one’s heart and could force a tear to the eye when they combined with the orchestra to produce rich moments of aural intensity.

Leila, the enigmatic, beguilingly beautiful priestess, portrayed marvellously by Desiree Frahn, wore a shimmering orange and golden veil and robes suggestive of something one would expect to see worn by the lead in a big budget Bollywood film.

The music was played to the standard you would expect of the State Opera – the absolute highest – and the singing of the principals and chorus was soaring, faultless, emotionally gripping. The most satisfying aspect of this production for my money, however, was the quality of the acting from the lead players, particularly Frahn as a demure, lovesick, selfless Leila; Andrew Goodwin, who gave us a reckless, courageous, blindly enamoured Nadir; and Grant Doyle, who played Zurga with a deep, resonant vocal tone, stern convictions and a great capacity for friendship and compassion. These performers, consummate singers all, gave such well embodied acting performances that one was drawn into the story and developed empathy with the characters the way one expects to do in a stage play well done.

Critically, the subject matter and various narrative aspects of “The Pearl Fishers” were unexpected and slightly awkward fare – something I would not perhaps expect to see staged in 2018 – though all power to Michael Gow for recasting original details of the story like the professions and ethnicities of Nadir, Zurga and Nourabad, as he did to make more sense to a contemporary audience with historical hindsight, and for wanting to keep lesser-known and produced operatic fare among the repertoire of works produced and seen by the Australian public today.

The religious bigotry and closed-minded violence of the native island people in leaves a bad taste in the mouth and a dirty mote in the mind’s eye of an audience member who knows better about people and different cultures today. It was never a viable option for Gow or the producers of this opera to completely change the storyline and libretto written by Cormon and Carre in a less politically correct time in order to make it more appealing to contemporary audiences. Bizet’s music would not fit right – it would simply not be the same opera. But Gow does acknowledge the various historical, cultural, geographical and religious anomalies and inaccuracies written into the original in his own discussion of the opera and also makes a conscious effort to show some of the flaws and foibles of white Europeans, such as greed, avarice, misanthropy, superciliousness, chauvinism, oppressiveness, and a breed of violence particular to them and different from the violence of the faith-crazed local people, rather than leaving all the negative traits and violent tendencies to a group of small-minded South Asian people as the original written material did.

Despite the action being set in an earlier era, it is difficult to swallow the chauvinistic characterisation of a ‘simple’ race of people who are so fanatically devoted to their superstitious religious beliefs and practices that they will believe in the power of a young virgin to sing their dreams into reality and then become a murderous, wrathful mob when that same young woman breaks her spoken religious vow.

Whilst recasting Zurga as a colonial government official makes the material more interesting and palatable, it also makes for at least one rather glaring eccentricity, viz, when the extremely pious and religiously devoted locals decide they are perfectly happy to be ruled by him, a European settler among other colonists with stiff collared shirts, polished leather boots, and carrying long-range firearms, who do not practice their local religion or traditions at all.

This production of George Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” was visually stunning, aurally beautiful, and at times emotionally enthralling. It is satisfying on the levels of spectacle and entertainment, but the subject matter and content of the libretto is shallow and antediluvian.