A cultural exchange that turned into a musical masala

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GEORGINA BENISON –

It is incredible to think that Georges Bizet was just 24 years old when he composed his opera, ‘Les Pecheurs de Perles’, a work showing uncanny maturity which foreshadows his much-loved classic, ‘Carmen’, which he would write 10 years later.
Audiences at The Royal Opera House, Muscat were fortunate enough to watch the 2012 production by ‘Opera Royal de Wallonie – Liege’ from Belgium on two evenings at the weekend.
Although the Belgian company usually performs Italian operas from the standard repertoire, this was a work by a French composer, sung in French with English and Arabic subtitles, by a totally French speaking cast – a refreshing experience for Francophiles in Oman!
The story is set far from European shores, however, in the distant island of Ceylon and centres on two men’s vow of eternal friendship: Nadir, a hunter, and Zurga, destined to become “king” of the small village of the “Pearl Fishers” of the title.
Both fell in love with the same veiled virgin priestess, Leila – whose own dilemma is the conflict between secular love (of Nadir) and her sacred oath as a priestess – and swore not to pursue her at the expense of their boyhood bond.
The story is unlikely and far-fetched, presented to Bizet as a commission, and premiered by the Theatre Lyrique Company of Paris in 1863, but because of its fine melodic composition, rich orchestration and superb arias, the audience loved it immediately. There are just four soloists in the opera, plus a strong chorus of villagers.
French-born Annick Massis is acclaimed worldwide as one of the greatest sopranos and most versatile singers of our time. She played Leila superbly at the weekend, a role with impossibly high coloratura passages and long phrases, despite the impediment of her costume and curtained coolie’s hat.
Opposite her was the Belgian tenor, Marc Laho as Nadir, also a difficult role with long passages which jump registers almost to the falsetto range.
Laho’s performance was exemplary while his voice, which showed signs of tiredness on Thursday evening, improved by Saturday, giving a fine lyrical quality throughout.
The famous duet in Act 1, ‘Au Fond du Temple Saint’, (“Pearl Fishers Duet”), declaring how Nadir and Zurga promise to be faithful to each other until death, was breathtakingly beautiful, with the rich, warm baritone sound of Lionel Lhote as Zurga.
The aria is sung against a flute melody which becomes a leit-motif love-theme throughout the opera, and even predicts Jose’s lyrical tenor role in “Carmen”.
In fact it is sung off-stage between Leila and Nadir right at the end, leaving Zurga alone to construct his own destiny as the final curtain falls.
The tall blond Belgian bass-baritone Roger Joakim was perfectly cast as the High Priest, Nourabad, a mercenary pearl-dealer whose only interest is in the lucrative trade and will stop at nothing, including execution, to maintain his profits. He held great stage presence and his role in Act 2 was beautifully sung with commanding confidence yet warmth as he responded to Leila’s confidences.
There is much use of off-stage singing to great effect in Pearl Fishers. Nadir laments from the wings as he approaches the priestess on her remote rock, where her devotional singing is to protect the fishermen against evil spirits and raging storms. She recognises his voice, and later confesses that she too felt stirrings of passion in her free, youthful days before she took her vows.
The full 40-strong chorus of the ‘Opera Royal de Wallonie – Liege’ often commented on their plight or prayed to Brahma from off-stage, before entering in beautiful formation as devout villagers seeking a leader or angry at the violation of the sacred vows.
Their movement was enhanced by 7 dancers who mimed some of the action, such as ritual dances on the sea shore, or later a mock execution at Nadir’s throat.
The house orchestra from Liege is accompanied from the pit by its Musical Director since 2008, the experienced Italian Maestro, Paolo Arrivabeni.
There was some fine horn playing in much of the orchestration while the flutes suffered a little in their intonation. But in general the ensemble and balance with the soloists was excellent.
The Stage and Artistic Director of this production was the highly sought-after and eminent Japanese theatrical master, Yoshi Oida.
The minimalist backdrop and set, using abstract swirls of blue to represent sea, beach and sky was effective, with little to distract the focus from the music and singing.
There were few props but those used were brilliantly subtle: three suspended boats which reflected onto the floor, and later just one, suggested a huge crescent moon.
Fishing baskets provided temple entrances and Leila’s promises, inscribed in silk, were tied on to a stick as a kind of prayer flag.
But here’s the rub: Pearl Fishers is a French Opera which is set in Hindu Sri Lanka.
To transcribe the action to Japan is taking ‘exotic oriental’ a step too far.
The costumes were subject to much criticism, from generic fishermen’s clothes in blue-grey hue to Japanese gowns for soloists, resulting in an obsessive fiddling with garments as sheets, taking them off and on, as a substitute for meaningful action.
Leila’s costume was the most inappropriate, comprising bright red “pyjamas” covered by alternating white robes, and a large hat with a veil which became entangled in her gifts, was knocked on the mirror and wobbled as she tried to sing.
Fortunately it was removed in major scenes!
This work by Bizet is delightful, and stands as a youthful accomplishment by the composer of the great masterpiece, “Carmen” ten years later. Without tampering with its Ceylonese context, the Wallonie production would have ticked all the boxes.

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