The Pearl Fishers

Music by Georges Bizet, libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon
Opera North
Leeds Grand Theatre

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The Chorus of Opera North Credit: James Glossop
Sophia Theodorides (Leĭla) Credit: James Glossop
Nico Darmanin (Nadir) Credit: James Glossop

Georges Bizet succumbed to a heart attack at the tender age of 36, leaving opera lovers to speculate on what the French composer might have accomplished if he hadn’t died so young. While it is fair to say that he is most fondly remembered for his swansong Carmen—one of the most performed operas in the repertoire—his stage debut The Pearl Fishers has gained in stature since its derided opening in 1863.

Written at speed by Bizet as a 24-year-old, The Pearl Fishers contains many of the ingredients that would make Carmen such a massive success 12 years later. Thematically, there is a preoccupation with the ‘exotic’, the conflict between love and duty, and the destructive power of jealousy. Musically, the opera sees Bizet experimenting with the concept of a recurring motif which is woven throughout the narrative.

Opera North has chosen to stage The Pearl Fishers as one of its large-scale concert performances, and when the production tours around the UK (including Manchester, Gateshead, Hull and Nottingham), there will be neither set design nor costumes. However, due to the temporary closure of Leeds Town Hall, a more theatrically realised version of Bizet’s opera is being performed in the Leeds Grand Theatre.

Set in ancient Ceylon (modern-day Sir Lanka), the opera opens with the local pearl fishers electing Zurga (Quirijn de Lang) to be their leader. Soon after, Zurga’s friend Nadir (Nico Darmanin) returns from his travels, and the two men reminisce about how they once both fell in love with the same priestess—but ultimately renounced her in order to protect their relationship.

Shortly after the two men’s reunion, the high priest Nourabad (James Creswell) appears with a veiled lady in tow. The mysterious woman is a priestess, whose exquisite singing will pacify the spirits of the sky, land and sea while the pearl fishers ply their dangerous trade.

Naturally, the woman is revealed to be Leĭla (Sophia Theodorides)—the priestess with whom both Zurga and Nadir fell in love—leading to disastrous consequences.

This was my first time watching The Pearl Fishers, and while I appreciate the intensity of its dramatic focus—only four named characters, three of whom form the central love triangle—I didn’t find its narrative particularly compelling.

Furthermore, despite Berlioz’s contention that The Pearl Fishers contains "a considerable number of beautiful, expressive pieces full of fire and rich colouring," Bizet’s score is nowhere near as evocative or thrilling as his compositions for Carmen. It’s clear that the young composer was still learning his craft. That being said, the famous duet between Zurga and Nadir, “Au fond du temple saint”, is marvellous.

Economically directed by Matthew Eberhardt, this production dispenses with the orientalism which mars other productions of The Pearl Fishers. Joanna Parker’s set design is a touch literal with its oversized pearls, but her use of video projection (co-created by Peter Mumford) helps to evoke the ocean depths, as does Mumford’s dreamlike lighting.

There are excellent performances from Quirijn de Lang and Nico Darmanin, both of whom capture the anguish of the two male protagonists, and James Creswell has an authoritative presence on stage. Most impressive of all is Sophia Theodorides—making her Opera North debut—whose powerful soprano captures the psychological complexity of Leĭla.

Dressed in black, the Opera North Chorus sing impressively and succeed in creating a sense of menace in the later scenes. Skilfully conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, the Opera North Orchestra manages to navigate the highs and lows of Bizet’s score with aplomb.

The Pearl Fishers may be a flawed work, but the talents of Opera North make it an ultimately rewarding experience.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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