The Pearl Fishers review - Simon Parris

BY SIMON PARRIS ON SEPTEMBER 20, 2014 

Melbourne Opera capitalizes on the perpetual popularity of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers with a crowd-pleasing new production.

Lush, colorful designs, expert choral and orchestral preparation and a strong, perfectly cast set of leads make for a satisfying, highly enjoyable night of opera.

Bizet’s gorgeous music is well suited to the Melbourne Opera Orchestra, which gives a particularly confident, unified and sprightly performance under the expert direction of returning maestro Richard Divall. Raymond Lawrence’s chorus preparation is reliably excellent, with the act two finale being a particularly rousing highlight. The electrifying live sound of the chorus and orchestra serves as a reminder that there is arguably no better place to hear opera in Melbourne than the Athenaeum Theatre.

Director Hugh Halliday has overseen a traditional version of The Pearl Fishers that features clear storytelling and strong character work from the leads. Singing in English aids the progression of the drama, but does tend to rob the piece of the romantic sound of the original French text.

With the input of new designer Daniel Harvey, the production has a neatly unified look, with sets that make full use of the height of the Athenaeum stage. The modular platforms provide varying height levels, and are easily altered for variety in each act. While floor space is sometimes a little scarce, the sets of large patterned translucent screens give lighting designer Scott Allan plenty of canvas to paint with vivid light.

Enhanced by the lighting, Harvey creates a touch of Broadway’s Aladdin in the rich shades of orange, pink and turquoise that adorn the crowd. The temple setting suggests that everyone is wearing their Sunday best, as they are definitely not dressed for pearl fishing. Michel Forbes’ choreography adds to the festive atmosphere, if not the religious undertones.

Viewed through the lens that has recently cast aspersions on the authenticity and appropriateness of productions such as The King and I, the depiction of the East in The Pearl Fishers is about as authentically exotic as a Turkish Delight chocolate bar, but just as delicious.

The verisimilitude of the setting is certainly boosted by the casting choices, with Brenton Spiteri and Phillip Calcagno looking entirely believable as swarthy pearl fishers. Mighty bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i also adds credibility as somber high priest Nourabad.

Joining Spiteri and Calcagno in the central love triangle is blond beauty Lee Abrahmsen, who is transformed into a glittering, raven-haired priestess as Leila. Young, talented and attractive, the trio have chemistry to spare, and keep the dramatic stakes clear of murky melodrama thanks to their committed performances.

A proven comic performer, Calcagno here reveals an impressive dramatic strength as jealous fisherman Zurga. Calcagno’s focus and intensity are unwavering as he conveys the full range of Zurga’s emotions, from joy and calm to rage and regret. Calcagno’s excellent work in his act three aria “The storm has passed” effectively sets up the climactic events of the opera.

Tenor Brenton Spiteri gives a thrilling breakout performance as the passionate Nadir. With bare-chested leading man looks, Spiteri is an ideal romantic lead, and his open, expressive face adds to his appeal. Blessed with a high, pure tenor voice (and excellent diction), Spiteri is frequently able to soar over full company singing. Spiteri and Calcagno give a sterling rendition of beloved duet “In the Depths of the Temple.” Based on his terrific work here, Spiteri’s future engagements are highly anticipated.

Often depicted as a distant exotic beauty, Abrahmsen’s fully realised performance portrays Leila as a tender and emotional young woman, skillfully engaging the audience’s affection and sympathy. In superb voice throughout, Abrahmsen finishes “As formerly in the dark night” (Leila’s Aria) with an exquisite nightingale tone.

Attendance at this all too short season is highly recommended.

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