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22 July, 2012

Pearlfishers at the Sydney Opera House - ‘passable’ performance but disappointing crowd

Les Pecheurs de Perles. Sydney Opera House. Wed 4th July 2012

This opera opening was of a fine standard overall yet the theatre was far from full for one of the most popular operas for Australian audiences. 

Andrew Jones is a fine full-throttle baritone while Henry Choo's tenor voice has lightened suitably for such French roles.  Both have clearly been working very hard on their art.  Soprano Nicole Car saved herself up for the last act and put on a balanced and stylish rendition of Leila, a very taxing role.  Basso Jud Arthur sang well as the priest.  The orchestra played well, as we have come to expect, under the baton of Maestro Guillaume Tourniaire.  Our chorus is also a credit to the company. 

The production is a blue back-dropped cardboard cut-out with clever illuminated miniatures visible at times.  It seems to ‘work’ with an Englishman as the protagonist in a white British uniform.  However, the name Zurga was a little out of place as was a foreigner being voted village chief - but THIS IS OPERA!  The ‘mateship’ or even gay interpretation all depended on the French for 'love' being almost the same as 'like'.  Zurga ends with "And I loved you" (about Nadir) implying a youthful affair-de-coeur between the men. 

My immediate neighbours in the theatre were overseas visitors, from Los Angeles and Ireland.  One couple was obviously from the Indian sub-continent so I wondered if, being new to opera, they might be insulted at the story-line set in their part of the world (albeit with a strongly European slant).  Not at all!  They commented in both intermissions how much they were enjoying their first opera. 

Now, back to the empty seats, hundreds of them.  Once upon a time this company played to near full houses most of the year, even mid-week.  By coincidence (or is it?) there is an interview with the company’s retiring marketing guru Liz Nield in this month’s OA newsletter.  She is quoted: “The skills that you need to sell opera are pretty much the same skills that you need to sell dog food.”  Yet she also said of the opera-on-the-harbour “the product sold itself”.  This is true of all quality products … although the harbourside opera was a big gamble in my view - but one that paid off on this occasion and was extremely memorable for those who went along.  The whole company could have come down with collective pneumonia had the weather been inclement. 

It is sad that the opera management is still in the clouds with self-congratulatory sentiments while the company itself lurches further and further from its former greatness.  At the height of the main winter season they will only do three opera performances for the whole of August … the rest is ‘South Pacific’.  No ‘opera’ from our premier ‘opera’ company for over three weeks!?  This is in breach of their mission statement from my reading of the document.  It is also possibly contrary to the spirit at least of their funding from the Australia Council as the country’s leading ‘opera’ provider.  There is nothing wrong with South Pacific … but opera it is not. 

It may be the first time in history that Aida is being marketed with photographs of Amneris.  This was brought to my attention by a long-time generous donor to the company who also pointed out the declining standards at our national company in recent years. 

In this Pearlfishers it was a shame that yet again, there was no serious international standard opera star to challenge and enrich the local excellent talent.  The company seems unwilling or unable to import big stars unlike in previous times.  It would be like Wimbledon happening with just English players.  ‘We have perfectly good tennis players here in England!’  And indeed we have very good opera singers in Australia … but they can never be ‘international’ unless they work with world leaders in the art.  Pearlfishers at the Sydney Opera House had Eric Cutler as tenor some years ago, a young American star ‘on the way up’.  We also had Australian baritone Michael Lewis at the peak of his powers.  Not only did these artists sing well, they had that special quality that one could not take one’s eyes off them.  There is an aura about stardom that is hard to delineate but easy to recognise when it is present.  This opera has been conducted by Richard Bonynge, a recognised world expert in French opera … and sadly another reluctant Opera Australia ‘cast-off’. 

When the new management was being sought I believed that the one essential criterion for a new artistic director was knowing the mobile number for Renee Fleming and/or some of the world’s other top opera artists. 

Dog food is one thing, but spectator sports are quite another.  I doubt that the London Olympic organisers are using the same techniques as for dog food advertising!  Opera is the Olympics of the arts in my (slightly biased) view. 

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..