That 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.

One 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 southern Vietnam.

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.

The 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.