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Wednesday, January 13, 2016



Sydney busses brightened up the commuter's day with ads for Opera Australia's attractions, Bize's I pescatori di perle among them. 

The curvy illustrations in paint box brights promised the spectacle oflove, lust and jealousy in the depths of the temple. 

I came to Bizet's one-song (according to my boss, on his way to a rugby World Cup match) opera with the Transit Authority's promise in mind. If love, lust and jealousy were on the menu, I was up for the full three courses. 

And, as a chastened graduate from the school of poorly translated Derridaian deconstructions of sexuality for higher aesthetic purposes, I was anxious to pry open the shell of Bizet's homoerotic and homosocial themed love triangle in I pescatori di perle (between Nadir and Zurga) and extract what pearls of wisdom I could.

Retrospectively, if it was frustrated homo-erotic and homo-social passion raging inevitably towards some dramatic climax I was after, then I should have accompanied my boss for a night at the rugby. 

My night at the opera delivered in terms of colour, costume, and oversized sets, but plateaued when it came to passion. 

All the elements of a spectacle were there in the costume design and the sets, but, rather than create an elaborate stage for the characters to plumb the emotional depths required by the libretto, like pearlfishers worried about getting their feet wet, the action and emotion remained on the surface.

I pescatori di perle offers as it major draw card the setting of Ceylon, rather than, say, Roma, evoking the sun-drenched, passion-inducing climate favoured by 1886 Milanese opera-goers. 

Love and loss on the grand and decidedly bent scale envisaged by Bizet for his 1863 opera could not take place in Milano. 

The librettists "Cormon" and Carre got to work finding a suitable location for two former boy-friends to re-configure their former relationship with the added challenge of a female to complicate things. 

Catania was the locale in a previous version.

Rather than Catania, where fishers abound, we are given a fishing village and pre-post-colonial license to mess with local religious rituals (Bizet was fascinated to adapt his 'hymn' composed in Rome as an 'inno to Brahma'!)

In its third month on stage, the production failed to deliver on the bus-published promise of love, lust and jealousy.

I did not love much about this melodramma.

I did not have to quell unbridled lust for the bare-chested tenor (Nadir flashed his pecs from loose-fitting ninja-style pyjamas), nor did I care.

Nor was I jealous of the soprano perched at the apex of this complex love triangle.

What I did enjoy was over before Act I was half-way through -- even if 'a tenor all singers above'!

Au fond du temple saint, the homosocial if not downright homoerotic duet for Nadir and Zurga that I've loved since writing a pretty good high-school essay on it for musicology ("Homosocialism in Nadir, "Mi par d'udir ancora"). 

But I'm fond of the musicology of it, not its every interpretation. 

Nevertheless conductor stoically braved the remainder of the melodramma in the wake of such a memorable song (and delivery by the very vocally capable tenor-baritone pair) which returns in fits and starts but, like Nadir's dissolved homosocial if not homoerotic passion for Zurga, never resurfaces in all its harmonious glory. 

Inspired harp playing rekindled the tender friends' intensity.

But then, it is hard to make a harp sound unheavenly. 

The magic of the harp sent the tenor and baritone ecstatically back in time, a time before Nadir had to identify unilaterally when it came to "queer politics", and before Zurga was burdened with the responsibility of governing the exotic village (no, not Catania) and dispensing the death penalty.

The "queer" question in this melodramma is a looming one, as it causes Zurga to ultimately rejoice in showing mercy. 

Zurga's joy in assisting the Nadir to escape a lynching is solely in Nadir's being saved.

Like you, I loved him, is the colonials' pronouncement to Leila.

The soprano displays a lack of vocal confidence, oscillating unexpectedly and showing no purity of tone. 

Her handling of the lingo although this was true of the majority of the cast, showed scant awareness of the accent. 

It is Leila's task to sing the Gods into clemency. 

She sings, my gossamer song hovers like a bird, sounding like a cockatoo suffering caffeine withdrawal, more heavy than hover.

The overall look of the melodramma, with the chorus-in-blue, dancers-in-pink dress code reminiscent of paper-foil Columbine wrappers, has a high eye-candy factor. 

This production could be up on the same charges of cultural appropriation visited on Baz Luhrman's A Midsummer Night�s Dream except that Les Pecheurs de Perles lacks the wit of its counterpart. 

Instead it uses an array of symbols that are too banal to be bricollage, too pedestrian to be pastiche. 

Exhibit A: gold spray-painted statue of Buddha that might have been salvaged from the bargain bin at Bayswiss homewares. 

An older Zurga sinks back into his scotch and his past as an intrepid colonial adventurer. 

This lack of irony makes the look unpalatable and the question follows how much overt orientalism can today's Sydneysider bear? 

Predictable in pink dancing girls escaped from a nearby Moorish harem stole the show for me, their clinking finger-cymbals perhaps an allusion to the hand-castanets of Carmen

I admired the cranial apparel of the temple priests, or were they pastry-chefs wearing their latest creations?

A final, and redeeming, feature of this production is its playfulness with the idea of memory. 

An older Zurga appears briefly at the beginning and end in a tux, having seen an opera which reminds him of his youthful years with Nadir and in the village. 

His memory of past events merges with what he has seen on stage (depicted in the frame-within-a-frame set design) so that it dawns on us, the audience, that the opera he has seen is the opera we are seeing. 

No wonder he looks so glum stuffed into that tuxm seems he'd rather be out barracking for France. 

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