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18 January, 2016

The Pearlfishers, Georges Bizet, at the Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House - The Pearlfishers, Georges Bizet

Opening Friday 15th January 2016

This new production of The Pearlfishers is marvellous - but it is not novel. What is novel is to hear four superb voices and a large, schooled chorus on this stage. Guillaume Tourniaire also did a novel reading of the score, taking some early parts particularly slowly as well as some later chorus parts at a cracking pace.

Samuel Johnsons definition of opera being exotic and irrational was certainly true of this odd interpretation where all three male Ceylonese protagonists are attired in European clothing. The chorus and extras wear pseudo native outfits or almost nothing at all. I make a point of never reading production notes as I dont want to read excuses as to why the interpreters have ignored the libretto. The only thing new for me was the old Brahmin priest Nourabad being bribed successively, amusing and sadly a point considering the sad position some in the clergy have found themselves in recent years (was it ever thus?). Otherwise this production had the essentials of temple, coastline, beach and ocean - but the representation of the sea looked more like blue tinsel gelato than any marine scene Ive ever seen.

Young tenor Pavol Breslik from Bratislava was very fine, although not completely suited to Nadir which really requires that specialist French tenor style with upper extension. For the last strains of Je crois entrendre encore he simply stopped singing - a bizarre act but probably better than cracking on a high note (many a tenor has used falsetto here and I have heard at least one great tenor recording doing the same non-ending as here). [I have since learned that this was the way Bizet wrote the aria and the familiar high ending was interpolated by others.] We were told that Mr Breslik had sung Lensky (Onegin) and Edgardo (Lucia) on successive nights in Munich recently (as one does). I call it stupid.

But the star of the night was Leila played by beautiful Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina. She performed flawlessly with a stage presence and forte singing plus all the extras trills, extended breath control and amazing, strong high notes, all accurate and tasteful. Her Comme autrefois was magnificent. She also received a strong and well deserved acclaim at the end. In contrast to the Russian singers meteoric CV, the managements choice for second cast soprano is said to be embarking on a promising and exciting operatic career and this would appear to be her first role in an opera house. One wishes her luck but Ms Siurina will be a hard act to follow and the show goes on for 15 performances over 2 months, most seats yet to sell according to the web site.

Zurga was played by Jose Carbo who was in big voice and drama, as we have come to expect. He was given a ludicrous long beard as well as a ridiculous wobbly woven crown yet his artistry shone through. Daniel Sumegi sang the rather thankless role of Nourabad with power and poise (even though he was made to look more like a gangster than a Brahmin priest).

Two questions arise: one why this opera is SO popular in Sydney and two, why it is so rarely performed elsewhere. It may be that an early radio broadcast by the ABC around 1965 seeded this opera for a generation of Australian opera lovers. We heard Pearlfishers all through the 1980s and 90s then in 2000, 2003, 2008 and 2012.

This month the Metropolitan Opera in New York breaks a century long drought for The Pearlfishers with a telecast production including Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien. The last at the Met was with Caruso and DeLuca in 1916, in Italian. More Australians may see The Pearlfishers in the cinema than in the theatre as a result of this bad timing. It is hard to imagine a lot of opera fans desperate to hear this opera a second time so soon. And foreign visitors may just think the opera is a canard in the canon rather than the true operatic jewel that it is (IMO).

There seemed to be more music including an extra chorus and a glorious love-to-the-gallows duet just near the end which I don't recall ever hearing before. They may have been cut-down versions we heard in the past. There was no auto-da-fe this time Im pleased to say, just some off-stage glints and hints of fire and brimstone. There was no second intermission in this outing and so with the two scenes in the third act we had two long and awkward pauses in the theatre. This will not suit everyone, most important, the composer wanted his singers to have a break, not to mention the orchestra, bar sales, audience DVT risk (economy class syndrome), etc. But it is a trade-mark of this management to compress their operas, ignoring the untold if unmeasured benefits of the operatic intermission (they have always been terrified of orchestra overtime payments). Some ticket-holders, I am told, only attend because of the intervals!

Altogether an excellent performance but in a long line of impressarial goofs on this companys way to possible insolvency sad to say. According to a recent press article the company needed to borrow twice on the following years funding to pay the bills.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land on which I walk and work, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to elders both past and present.