Like Mozart and Schubert before him, Georges Bizet did not see out his thirties. Unlike them, his published output, from first to last, consisted of works destined solely for the theatre.
Carmen, the world’s most-performed opera, would be Bizet’s last triumph. The Pearl Fishers, given here in director Matthew Eberhardt‘s new realisation for Opera North, was his very first.
In keeping with the 19th-century vogue for exotic operatic locations – Russia, Italy, Egypt, Spain, Scotland and London were all used throughout his career – Bizet set The Pearl Fishers in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In a coastal village, the pearl fishing season’s preparations are nearly complete. With boats, nets and diving gear serviced, the villagers await the arrival of the anonymous, veiled priestess, whose singing and prayers will ensure the safety and success of their lucrative harvesting. The elected chief, Zurga, is joined by an estranged friend, Nadir, and they sing the justly-famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” (“Deep in the sacred temple”), recounting how, on their last trip together, they had both seen and fallen in love with the same beautiful woman, devoutly performing her religious duties. For this to be opera, which lady must now turn up to provide the much-anticipated holy sanction, but Léïla, the priestess just recalled. Zurga and Nadir are destined to be estranged once more.
The Pearl Fishers acquired an early reputation as a one-tune opera, but there are tellingly beautiful arias for all the main protagonists throughout its three Acts. Having placed such a memorable offering as the aforementioned duet so early in the piece, Bizet was able to exploit its melodic and harmonic features, in suitably subtle recalls, as almost subliminal triggers for the audience in the rest of the drama. As powerful a presence as Peter Mumford‘s disquieting visual backdrop of a ceaselessly brooding ocean, these inescapable musical reminders, sometimes little more than diffuse variation in the orchestra or chorus, never quite allow us to forget the root cause of the fateful human trials being played out.
Though vocally a little unsteady to start with, Opera North regular Quirijn de Lang, as Zurga, successfully traversed the emotional spectrum sent to tax him: the dignity and anguish of his responsibility as village leader, the confrontational anger of the betrayal and jealousy from the love triangle and his noble, selfless incisiveness to make amends at the end.
Sophia Theodorides, in her ON debut, brought out the intrinsic goodness of Léïla, a thoroughly lyrical portrait of femininity, though she had a tendency to be a little too strident in some declaimed top notes. Nico Darmanin, a distinguished Alfredo in the Company’s recent Traviata, registered Nadir’s tortured quandary: the uneasy tension as to what he told Zurga of his first encounter with Léïla and his true feelings for her now. Their love duet in the Act II night-time tryst was heartfelt and moving, and their unshakable, passionate unity in the face of death in Act III winningly affectionate.
Perhaps the vocal hero of the night, though his particular heroism, given the setting, can hardly be described as “unsung” was James Creswell as Nourabad. Distinguished by sporting a bafflingly incongruous bowler hat, his role, evidently, was that of the community’s high priest. Though certainly on the gruff side in the manner in which those of the cloth should conduct themselves, he was, nevertheless, an arresting presence on stage. Full-voiced and imperious in demeanour, one would wisely hesitate before crossing him.
Again this season, the choral singing was glorious, at one moment blissfully radiant in happy fellowship; the next cruelly vengeful, honest emotional reactions of a people endangered by the entanglements of outsiders.
It is most unlikely that anyone connected with the work’s 1863 premiere had the remotest knowledge of the music of Sri Lanka. The opera’s original setting was to be Mexico and Bizet knew that the inclusion of tambourine and cymbal in the score would not faithfully evoke the atmosphere of either. Primarily, his aim was to depict somewhere more removed and elusive than Autumnal Paris. The strength in his orchestral writing was, above all, a capacity to characterise human emotion. Conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren’s delivery, in this regard, was surefooted and insightful, highlighting both the score’s serenity and violence. His tempi accommodated the singers admirably and, despite the wide dynamics, there was ample allowance made for them to register vocally. The orchestra was alert and responsive throughout, with particularly beautiful, sympathetic contributions from the flute, cor anglais, horn and cello.
Joanna Parker‘s stylish, almost expressionistic, set design of cluttered giant pearls emphasised the claustrophobia of a close-knit community with a single purpose; everyone as near-equals, but no-one ending up with much freedom to move.
Sung in French, with English titles.
Conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren; Director Matthew Eberhardt; Set, Costume and Video Designer (Leeds only) Joanna Parker; Lighting and Video Designer (Leeds only) Peter Mumford; Movement Director Laila Diallo (Leeds only)
FUTURE PERFORMANCES AT LEEDS GRAND THEATRE
Thursday 25 May, Saturday 27 May, Wednesday 31 May and Friday 02 June, all at 7pm.
Then touring, in concert performance, to Manchester, Gateshead, Hull and Nottingham until 01 July.
Photography: James Glossop. Cover photograph: Nico Darmanin as Nadir.