Clinging to its place in the opera repertoire largely by virtue of its famous tenor-baritone duet, Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’ is far from great. The story, a doomed romantic triangle set among a community of pearl divers in exotic Ceylon, is light on plot and heavy on Orientalist fantasy; the libretto’s lousy and Bizet’s music only hints at the future glories of ‘Carmen’, composed a decade later.
Director Oliver Platt’s pared-down production struggles to overcome these limitations. The set is minimal, with the action mostly taking place beneath a sail-like orange sheet. The rather wan-looking chorus, gamely impersonating native villagers, fails to supply the requisite local colour, notwithstanding the three lithe Odissi dancers in their midst, providing some classical Indian dance courtesy of choreographer Katharine Ryan.
The opera’s four principals, fortunately, make a stronger impact. Admittedly, Australian baritone Grant Doyle and South Korean tenor Jung Soo Yun, who play village leader Zurga and hunter Nadir, take a while to warm up. Given that their big number, the showstopping avowal of eternal friendship, ‘Au fond du temple saint’, takes place early in the first act, this is a shame. Both gain in assurance as the work progresses and bass Keel Watson’s high priest Nourabad is a solid presence throughout. Even better is Greek-Canadian soprano Leila Soula Parassidis, whose virgin priestess Leila, the alluring object of desire who comes between the men, both looks and sounds the part. But it’s conductor Matthew Waldren and the City of London Sinfonia who best exploit the score’s lush sonorities and provide the evening’s richest pleasures. Jason Best