sat 25/05/2024

The Pearl Fishers, Opera North review - focus on the mystery | reviews, news & interviews

The Pearl Fishers, Opera North review - focus on the mystery

The Pearl Fishers, Opera North review - focus on the mystery

‘Concert staging’ of Bizet’s essay in exoticism has its advantages

Fishing for another way of seeingAll images by James Glossop

The Pearl Fishers is very much a mid-19th century Romantic opera, with a plot that’s basically a love triangle set in an exotic location. Its writers, Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon, were not the greatest of plot inventors, and after hearing the opening scene alone, you might think much the same about the inspiration of the music, beautifully crafted though it is.

But then there’s that astonishing tune, attached first to the duet for the two men in love with memory of the same woman, “Au fond du temple saint”. Bizet knew a good thing when he wrote one, and he keeps bringing it back again and again in different guises, rather like an operatic equivalent of Berlioz’ idée fixe, to represent the girl, or the flame of passion she’s aroused.

In a curious way, the limitations of Opera North’s new version, in what they call a “concert staging” – meaning that it can be performed both in a theatre (as last night) or elsewhere without the video projected backdrop, constructed set, costumes and lighting – suit the piece rather well.

In the Grand Theatre in Leeds, where four more performances are to be given, giant “pearls” half fill the stage (pictured below: Sophie Theodorides as Leila and Nico Darmanin as Nadir) , and the first two acts have a watery video backdrop to indicate the sea (the third is of ropes in close-up and then a spectral visage, which may be symbolic of something but it’s not so obvious). Scene from The Pearl Fishers at Opera NorthThere’s also, mid-stage, a sort of totem pole of tangled rope which certainly looks quite un-seamanlike, but then, as the opera’s first reviewers pointed out, the two male protagonists show very little sign of actually being involved in fishing for anything. On tour, the company will perform in concert halls, without the videos (by Joanna Parker and Peter Mumford), sets and costumes (Joanna Parker), striking on-stage lighting featuring remotely operated moving spots (Peter Mumford), or the movement devised for the chorus by Laïla Diallo.

So the focus, in the theatre version, is still on the central trio and the person of Nourabad, originally a high priest but here more a figure of mystery, looking like a combination of Oliver Hardy and the Old Man of the Sea.

Mystery and the power of memory are two themes brought to the fore in the conceptualization this team, led by Matthew Eberhardt, have brought to the piece. They may have over-thought it a bit, as some comments recorded in the programme book indicate that they associate the opera’s original exoticism with colonialism, and we are all agin that, of course.

The staging may not go in for much in the way of dancing (despite the words of the text), though the first Act makes the most of former professional dancer and chorus member Amy Freston as leader of some ensemble movement – and also, it seems, to represent the figure of the beautiful Leïla as she exists in the memories of the two men who sing about her.

The musical text is the 2015 edition by Hugh Macdonald, which I believe restores elements of Bizet’s original orchestration lost in earlier published editions: under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton the Orchestra of Opera North sounded magnificent and did him and it proud. Quirijn de Lang as Zurga in The Pearl FishersAnd the solo singers? Opera North have assembled a very strong quartet in Quirijn de Lang (Zurga, pictured above), Nico Darmanin (Nadir), Sophie Theodorides (Leïla) and James Cresswell (Nourabad). That tenor-baritone duet – which stirs the whole scenario into life when it’s first heard – was refined, warm and finely balanced as sung by de Lang and Darmanin, and each has his moments, too, in the solo scenes and love duets that follow. 

Theodorides displayed a beautiful range of power and tone, both in duet and besides – revealing her quality as a real operatic songbird in “Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre”: in her Opera North debut, she’s given evidence of a voice and personality that could well be asked to visit again. James Cresswell sings with all his customary incisiveness and imbues Nourabad with a whimsical personality that proved intriguing. The chorus singing was mostly distinguished and precise, but here and there they seemed less than completely able to keep up with Matthew Kofi Waldren’s energetic beat.

  • Further performances in Leeds on 25, 27 and 31 May and 2 June; after Leeds, concert performances at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester (8 June), Sage Gateshead (17 June), Hull City Hall (24 June) and the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham (1 July) 
That tenor-baritone duet - which stirs the whole scenario into life when it’s first heard - was refined, warm and finely balanced

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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