Bizet, Carre & Cormon
Grand Theatre, Leeds
May 16-June 2, 2023: 2 hrs 20 mins
(Concert performance tour: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester June 8; Sage Gateshead June 17; Hull City Hall June 24; Royal Concert Hall Nottingham July 1)
The story of The Pearl Fishers is a straightforward one: two men are in love with the same girl. It’s set in a land far, far away (at least as 19th Century Parisian audiences saw it) – Ceylon, to be precise. The guys are divers for pearls, and their community has a strong religious life, so not only is there a high priest (called Nourabad), but the girl in question is a recently-arrived new priestess, Leïla.
The two other men are old friends and vowed long ago that though they each fell for the same young priestess elsewhere, they wouldn’t let it spoil their comradely mutual loyalty. That’s when the most famous number in the opera, the oft-excerpted Pearl Fishers Duet, more correctly known as Au fond du temple saint for tenor and baritone, comes in). Then – at first unrecognised by either – it turns out that Leïla is the same girl.
Cue much agonising and love-duetting. The senior of the two guys, Zurga, is the chosen leader of the village, and when his mate Nadir is caught in a compromising situation with Leïla he feels he must condemn both to death. Later he realises that, even longer ago, his life was once saved by her. He sets the village on fire to give her and Nadir a chance to escape, which they do.
It's a not-untypical 19th Century Romantic drama plot – a bit weak at the denouement, perhaps, but leaning heavily on forgotten secrets being revealed and the conflict of love and duty. The main reason it has stayed in the repertoire is Bizet’s music – it made his name, a decade before Carmen – and that male duet, particularly. Not only does he give it a magnificent outing in the first Act, but he keeps bringing the tune back in different guises, almost relentlessly hammering at it by the end.
Opera North’s version is what they call “concert staging”, which at Leeds Grand Theatre is being seen in a pretty full theatrical presentation (with backdrop videos by Joanna Parker and Peter Mumford, sets and costumes by Joanna Parker, lighting by Peter Mumford and movement for the chorus by Laïla Diallo).
When it tours to Manchester, Gateshead, Hull and Nottingham it will be without all that, which means the philosophy of director Matthew Eberhardt of seeking a new focus for its tale without a supposedly real exotic location, and engaging themes such as the exploitation of the two-thirds world’s producers and the monetary lure of beautiful objects, will be rather beside the point – or at least left to the audience's imagination. Not that they were very powerful, even in the Leeds staging: what engaged me was the quality of the solo singing.
Quirijn de Lang (Zurga), Nico Darmanin (Nadir) and James Cresswell (Nourabad) are all very fine singers whom Opera North has featured before, and Sophie Theodorides (Leïla), making her debut with them, is a real find, with superb technique and a lovely soprano voice quality. The chorus singing was a bit variable, not always seeming to keep up with the energetic beat of conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren, but the orchestral playing was magnificent.
Thinking of exoticism… those with long memories may recall the Manchester Palace Theatre first night in 1995 when Opera North’s previous production of this piece last visited the city. So keen were the-then creative team to enhance the symbolism of fire in the words of the text that they had dancers with lighted flames dashing around the stage with swooping movements, and one bit of smouldering ash landed on a part of the set without complete fire-protection, resulting in a small conflagration on the stage itself.
It’s the only time I’ve been in a theatre when members of the audience have shouted “There’s a fire on stage” in earnest.
Fortunately the safety curtain came down quickly and no panic ensued, though tenor Arthur Davies had bravely tried to smother the flames with his bare hands.
Much better to go, as this production does, for the symbolism of water – and to use an evocative piece of video projection rather than the real thing.
More info and tickets here