OPERA - OTHER COMPOSERS - PEARL FISHERS
Bizetís Les pecheurs de perles
is the only new production from Opera Australia in its summer season is
depressing. That this hotch-potch is the piece that subscribers most
wanted back in the repertoire is despair-making.
reason for its popularity is continuous exposure to the erotic male
duet, Au fond du temple saint, which thrills a wider audience than opera
queens. Throughout the 1960s, this four-minute number became standard
breakfast fare on ABC radio in a 1950s version by Jussi Bjoerling and
Robert Merrill. For the 1981 film Gallipoli,
Peter Weir and David Williamson had Bill Hunter to play it on a
gramophone in the trenches as one more expression of the mateship
between Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. It thus became part of the Anzac
legend. Audiences presumably hear that 1950s account in their mindís
ear when they go to the theatre. Otherwise, how could they cheer
renditions such as the current one?
The second source of enthusiasm is the
residue of racism through which we Europeans approach the exotic East.
In Les pecheurs, the darkies,
driven on by their Evil High Priest, are bloodthirsty and scared of
thunder. The colonising imagination treats all subject peoples as
interchangeable, like costumes. The first draft was set in Mexico, not
the Ceylon that captivated the librettists once they laid hands on a
travel guide to that island. The plot converts the Ceylonese to
Hinduism, though that is the religion of the minority Tamils.
The libretto and score are too flimsy to be
redeemed from this embarrassment of stereotypes by bringing the action
into the Tamil Tigers rebellion in the way that Ken Russell re-set Butterfly during the war years of 1937-45.
An intellectual fashion for Post-Colonial
theorising means that no European director would now dare to serve up
the Orientalism that excited Bizetís Paris audiences in 1863, the year
in which the French conquered Mexico City, just after they had annexed
To escape that complicity, the Swedish
director Ann-Margret Pettersson retreated into a Post-Modernism where
the mise-en-scene becomes the
only reality. We are transported, therefore, to the prop department of
the Theatre Lyrique in the
1860s, not to any geographical place. She invites us to view both our
racism and that of the original through the frames of a magic lantern
show and the proscenium arch of the opera stage. The result is to
prettify prejudice, not to challenge or diffuse it.
The only antidote for the anodyne is
first-rate music-making, which we did not get. As the romantic lead,
Nadir, US import David Miller improved through the first act, but the
duet came too soon for him to have warmed himself into its intensity. He
has a youthful voice without its sounding fresh, possessed of neither
the dulcet timbre of French tenors nor the ping of the Italian.
Michael Lewis as the betrayed Zurga found the
fripperies of Act I heavy going but came through in Act II and III
whenever he had to be violent and jealous. Ghillian Sullivan as the love
object, Leila, faces such a musical melange that she had difficulty
deciding whether to play goddess or diva.
For her Act I solo, she trilled as expected.
closest Les pecheurs comes to emotional depth is in its recognition that a
man who loses his woman to his best friend experiences a double
betrayal. Zurga is more distraught at the loss of Nadir than of Liela.
The suspension of disbelief necessary for that male bonding not to seem
campy is taxing at the best of times. It was not helped by Sullivanís
and Lewisís looking like Nadirís parents. None of them gave the
slightest hint of wishing to bisect the other sides of their triangle.
The ballet and costumes supplied no aphrodisiacs.
Richard Bonynge droned the band through the
overture before plodding behind the lyrical duet. That one good tune
reappears eight times, allowing Bizet to display his genius for
self-plagiarism. The music is such a pastiche that Bonynge could have
been concocting the score instead of conducting it.
The thunder is terrific.