Set in ancient Ceylon, among dirt-poor fisher-folk, Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré’s libretto offered Bizet an evocative exotic locale but little by way of dramatic interest or momentum.
We begin on a desolate shore, where the eponymous pearl-divers sing of the dangers and destitution which they face, praying for protection and performing ritual dances to fend off evil spirits. ‘Conflict’ is introduced when the recently re-united comrades, Zurga, the head fisherman, and Nadir, find themselves re-living an old rivalry for the beautiful virgin priestess, Leila - a rivalry that they had formerly renounced in the name of eternal brotherhood. Leila is herself torn between her sacred vows to Brahma - impressed upon her by the high priest Nourabad and which she must fulfil to ensure the fishermen’s safety - and her rekindled secular passion for Nadir. Raging jealousy leads Zurga to condemn the lovers to death, but anger is followed by remorse and finally mercy when Zurga recognises Leila, somewhat improbably, as the woman who had sheltered him when he was a fugitive. As the villagers fight to save their homes from an inferno which has engulfed them, Zurga releases the couple and urges them to flee.
Such a limp, cliché-ridden tale needs an injection of dramatic energy from its director. Oliver Platt and his designer Colin Richmond adopt a minimalist approach in this new production for Opera Holland Park, which looks pretty but generates little tension or sultry heat.
The bare stage is suffused with aquamarine light, and onto this Sri Lankan shore flood the villagers, bedecked in vibrant, multi-coloured costumes. A silky sheet billows sumptuously, serving to evoke sun, sand and, later, storm-tossed sail. It looks richly ‘authentic’; but, just as Bizet’s score somewhat disconcertingly juxtaposes a bevy of musical styles from East and West, so the fine-voiced chorus don’t quite pass as poverty-struck fishermen. Katharine Ryan’s choreography is uninspiring and at times inert; the ceremonial dances are hackneyed and in general the stage movements are rather amateur. Which is a pity as the Opera Holland Park chorus are on terrific form, vehemently ringing out their hymn ‘Brahma divin Brahma!’ to quell the storm which ends Act 2, and urgently awaiting the double execution as the dawn approaches, ‘Dès que le soleil’ in the final Act.
So much depends on the four leads and, fortunately for Platt, the soloists here tell the story clearly and with conviction. Australian baritone Grant Doyle was a characterful Zurga, establishing a powerful stage presence and alert to every dramatic gesture and detail. While not always secure at the top, Doyle sang with a credible dark tone and rich warmth, particularly in his Act 3 aria, ‘L’orage est calmé’ as both the natural tempest and his own anger quieten.
Jung Soo Yun was rather wooden initially as Nadir, but he warmed up and the South Korean tenor’s appealing lyrical brightness blended beautifully with Doyle in their renowned duet. His delicate, well-controlled falsetto was sweetly beguiling.
As the mysterious priestess Leila, Greek-Canadian soprano Soula Parassidis was befittingly glamorous, richly swathed in silks and veil, and glossily toned of voice. Combining a gleaming timbre with lightness and flexibility, Parassidis dispatched the French coloratura effortlessly, and with technical precision and assurance. Throughout she used her voice expressively, powerfully communicating character and feeling.
Making up the quartet of soloists, Keel Watson was an authoritative, imposing High Priest.
The small forces of the City of London Sinfonia summoned up a surprisingly rich array of tints and shades under the proficient baton of Matthew Waldren. The woodwind and string soloists rose admirably to their respective challenges and there was some wonderfully soft playing from the horns.
So, go along for the good tunes. The drama may lack credibility and sincerity, but the melodies delight and there is no doubting the singers’ conviction.