The Pearl Fishers has received a mixed reception since its first performance in 1863 as its music is often described as inferior to Bizet’s rousing work Carmen.
Despite this, conductor Graham Abbott has the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra perform a pleasurable score of gentle overtures, ethereal solos, memorable duets and enjoyable choruses.
Matt Scott’s lighting is exceptional in its constant transformation of the panoramic view, with highlights including a wild storm, sudden flashes of lightning and a fire that burns the island dwellings in the final act. Robert Kemp’s set is also impressive with its stone walls, Hindu shrines and hunting lodge interior. The staging is complemented by the chorus’ orange and yellow costumes, which appear vividly against a wide vista of sea and sky.
It is quite believable that the two males fall in love with Desire Frahn’s Leila, dressed mysteriously in a gold gossamer veil and singing divinely to the gods. Frahn’s succession to the role comes after years of hard work and we will be sure to see her shine in future productions.
A warm reception was extended to Grant Doyle, who performed superbly in the role of Zurga, a jealous man driven to mad decisions. Andrew Goodwin shone when he dreamed and reunited with Leila.
The State Opera chorus sang brilliantly as always, but they did not always seem comfortable on stage in their costumes and for too long stood centre-stage as a group. This was particularly apparent during the opening number. While the lyrics refer to dancing until the darkness drives away the spirits there was no dancing and when the chorus sang of being terrified of an approaching storm they remained united as a group.
The casting was another downfall. Director Michael Gow acknowledges that The Pearl Fishers was written at a time when Europeans were fascinated with the Orient. At that time it was commonly believed that Western culture was superior to the “exotic” indigenous cultures of colonised lands. In this day and age, however, having a very European-looking chorus pretending to be Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) is better left to the bygone era of performing arts.
The Pearl Fishers is an entertaining and colourful depiction of the power of love in an age of white male colonisers finding themselves drawn to attractive, exotic indigenous women. This may not have been the intention of the composer and librettist, however, who probably conceived and wrote the lead males as members of the Ceylonese community.
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