I whinged and moaned about going to Les pêcheurs de perles, mostly out of Bizet fatigue (wasn't Carmen enough for one season?) and weariness of that cliché duet, which extended to advance weariness of the whole opera. Slightly unfair since I didn't know it very well. And as usual, low expectations meant pleasant surprise. Not overflowing delight — it's only Pearlfishers — but more enjoyable than my curmudgeonliness was prepared for.
The production images in the advertising suggested one of these very lavish and very literal stagings, which is just what I'd expect from an Opera Australia staging of a pop hit but the truth is a bit more interesting, thank god. There is a conventional, prettily exotic set, but it's too small to be used and it sits at the back of an big, empty stage, which is where all the action actually happens. It's an opera-within-an-opera, the flashback of an elderly Zurga, a former governor of Ceylon who has just returned from a night at the opera, full of melancholy memories.
This production plays up the Zurga ♥ Nadir understanding of the love triangle, to the point where there's really no sense that Zurga sees Léïla as anything other than a rival. The person I went with tells me that when she saw this production last time, a couple of years ago, the homo-erotic element wasn't nearly so unambiguous, so perhaps that's the work of Luise Napier, who rehearsed this revival. It works well, especially given the presentation of Zurga, who, with his plastic injected wig and white leisure suit, looks for all the world like Confirmed Bachelor Ken™.
Strangely weak beginnings for both Michael Lewis (Zurga) and Henry Choo (Nadir), though they both got better as the evening progressed, Lewis especially. The duet was a bit uneven, Henry dominating Michael somewhat. It took me a strangely long time (not having given my programme more than a cursory glance) to recognise Shane Lowrencev as Nourabad — we decided this was due to the shortening effect of his tunic, since it's usually his terrifying height which makes him stand out.
Leanne Kenneally, who I adored as the Countess Almaviva last year, is a gorgeous Léïla. What a shame we don't see her more often at Opera Australia — she's a truly lovely artist. Her voice is silvery and sweet and pretty, like so many are, but it's also interesting to listen to, which so many are not. She invests both glittery coloratura and slightly twee laments with real and endearing personality. She's a clever actress, who makes the distant, chaste priestess into the most believably human character on stage. She had (and still has) me considering a second trip to this opera, if for no other reason than to support a singer too rarely heard in this theatre. Maybe I am in a minority, but in their shared repertoire (and there's a lot of it) I would take Leanne over Emma Matthews any day. Actually, that's my lastingest impression of this Pearlfishers. Give Us More Leanne.