From the outset, last night’s opening performance of Opera North’s The Pearl Fishers, at Leeds Grand Theatre, was further example of this incredibly important company’s relevance to the arts – not only regionally – but nationally and internationally too.
Under the baton of conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren the spellbinding soundscape, intricate harmonies and soaring choruses expertly captured the extremes of beauty and darkness. Director Matthew Eberhardt’s atmospheric production – exclusive to Leeds – brings a thoughtful and modern approach to this 160-year-old work.
As a collective, we are acutely aware that Bizet’s 1863 work, portraying the lives of those managing a subsistence coastal existence while ultimately under the yoke of yet more unpalatable British colonialism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), represents a challenge for 21st century production. However Eberhardt, together with Joanna Parker’s Set and Costume design, Peter Mumford’s Lighting and particularly Laila Diallo’s interpretation of the piece as Movement Director, brings a story which references – but does not ‘talk about’ the potential pitfalls that come from a western audience observing a production set in the ‘East’.
So, to the performance: While many of us may have been drawn to the city centre on this Tuesday night to bathe in the live beauty of "Au fond du temple saint", which for years has soothed (via Spotify - or other streaming platforms) after a tough day at the office, or down the mine, or provided the backdrop for a carefully arranged ‘date night’ (before Classic FM et al claimed ownership) – there is much more in this often underrated opera.
Of course this work in three acts is ultimately about two blokes and one girl. It is necessary to park the implausible coincidences – and the fact you instinctively know how it’s all going to pan out – even if you haven’t read the synopsis in the programme (which are always thoughtfully and comprehensively collated by-the-way. I love them and would always urge you to support Opera North’s efforts by buying one.)
The story is one of Nadir (Nico Darmanin) and Zurga, (Quirijin de Lang). The pair have been friends since childhood. The backstory is that in the past they both fell for the unattainable Leila, (Sophia Theodorides). Leila is a priestess of the Hindu god of creation, Brahma. Although there was clearly tension at the time, rather than compete for her love, the friends apparently pledged to focus on their lasting friendship over our maiden.
The opera opens with a number of years having subsequently elapsed. Zurga has just successfully negotiated something akin to local elections. His villagers, portrayed immaculately by the Chorus – dressed in sophisticated black – fear the sea and are concerned primarily with ancient rituals to chase away evil spirits.
When Nadir arrives unexpectedly, Zurga is overjoyed and it’s just like old times as the beautiful duet of friendship, “Au fond du temple saint” (At the back of the holy temple) Fills the space with emotional, musical and psychological depth.
Thankfully, in a bid to guarantee sustainable fishing, the community are joined by a young priestess who vows to remain among them to pray for good fortune. Predictably that clergywoman is Leila.
It transpires that Nadir has returned to the village because of Leila in spite of the brotherly promise. we learn this through his aria “Je crois entendre encore.” There has been an illicit romance.
Leila is now the virgin priestess who must keep her vows on pain of death, an edict enforced by the high priest Nourabad (JamesCreswell).
Throughout, Kofi Waldren conducts the exquisite orchestra, who in the summer will be exchanging their pit for a Millennium Square stage with the likes of Carol Decker and Utah Saints. Man Alive.
There’s a reunion, a discovery and ultimately an execution sentence. Act II concludes with a ferocious storm that ups-the-ante and is reinforced by anguished perfection from the Chorus.
Zurga, who as Headman can halt the death sentence, confronts his conflicted feelings in Act III. Tormented – it clicks that neither Nadir nor Leila truly love him. Our priestess grows in stature as she faces death. Theodorides’ performance is laced with power, belief and justification.
A false dawn brings a distant glow in the sky that is the work of Zurga. To distract his village folk who are intent on the demise of our lovers, he has set fire to their houses, to allow Leila and Nadir to escape.
Zurga’s ultimate fate isn’t clear – but we can imagine.
This retelling of Bizet’s work by Opera North, first premiered by the company in 1988 should be seen. A Wagner devotee may well be dismissive, but The Pearl Fishers tells an uncomplicated story in an accessible way for those drawn to the art.
Opera North’s The Pearl Fishers runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until 2 June, before touring to Bridgewater Hall (Manchester), Sage Gateshead, Hull City Hall and Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall.
For tickets and info CLICK HERE
Header Image: Quirijn de Lang as Zurga and Sophia Theodoridesas Leïla (James Glossop)