I went to see the South Australian State Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers on Saturday night. It was beautiful, and very moving.
The story in the original libretto is, well, trite and hackneyed. The opera is set in Ceylon – oriental and romantic. Zurga is elected to lead the Pearl Fishers on their dangerous fishing voyage. As he does so, a stranger comes upon the scene – he is Nadir, Zurga’s long lost friend. Zurga and Nadir pledge their eternal friendship again, in what is surely the most beautiful duet ever written for two men. But then, the priestess who is to guard the pearl fishers voyage comes to their camp. She is veiled, but Nadir recognises her voice – it is Leila, whom he loves. And Leila recognises him! But… she is sworn to chastity, and virginity, on pain of death. In the second act, Leila is left alone for the night, but Nadir makes his way to her, and despite her pleading, he declares his love for her. Eventually, she says that she loves him too, but just as he is fleeing, they are discovered. Zurga must pass judgement – he condemns them both to be executed at dawn the next day. In the third act, Leila visits Zurga to plead for Nadir’s life. “Kill me,” she says, “but spare him.” Zurga in a fit of hideous jealousy refuses mercy. In the traditional version, he is jealous because he too loves Leila. She leaves him, asking him to give her necklace to her mother. She passes it to him, and he recognises it: it is the necklace he gave to a small girl many many years ago, who saved his life. In shock, he decides to spare her and Nadir, but by then, the pearl fishers are enraged. He must find a way for them to escape. So he sets the camp on fire. In the confusion, Nadir and Leila escape, but Zurga dies.
So much for the original libretto. It’s very thin, even for an opera. And annoying. The second act had all my feminist sensibilities irritated: every single man there was policing Leila. She must be virgin, she must love Nadir, she must keep her face veiled. I had no sympathy for Nadir’s pleadings of love: if he loved her so much, why on earth did he place her in danger by trying to be with her? He knew that it would mean death for her, yet he wouldn’t leave. A callow youth, I decided, and I couldn’t see why Leila loved him.
But the SA State Opera’s version of the story was much more compelling, and it moved me to tears. Several times. ‘Though not for Nadir.
As the overture played, we saw an elderly gentleman, Zurga, seated in his comfortable home, reflective, pensive, sore at heart, pouring himself another glass of spirits, restless. He is remembering the time when he was a colonial administrator in Ceylon. As the chorus started singing, a younger Zurga appeared, in his white colonial suit. He was stiff, but in command. And then, Nadir appeared. In the duet, Nadir pledged friendship, but Zurga pledged love. He was a man in love with a younger man, but perhaps not even aware of his love, or if he was aware of it, he knew he could not speak of it. But he and Zurga could be friends.
The duet which Zurga and Nadir sing in the first act is so beautiful that I think I would have cried no matter what, for the sheer joy of hearing it. On Satruday night, it was more than just a lovely song. I could see Zurga’s love for Nadir, and his longing. Hence his terrible anger when he is betrayed, and his jealously of Leila. In the final moments of the opera, as Nadir and Leila flee, he at last voices his love. “Nadir, je t’aimais!”
In the standard libretto, the words are, “Léïla, je t’aimais.”
The love and longing that Zurga had for Nadir was stunningly portrayed. The part was sung by Grant Doyle, and he was compelling. In the initial scenes, he was very much a stiff British administrator, in command, tense, yet somehow singing beautifully.* In the final act, I could see his torment: his entire being was in agony. It was a moment of gut wrenching truth when he was finally able to say, “Nadir, I love you!”
I have seen very little opera, despite my love of singing, so I am in no real position to assess the merits of the production. I thought that Leanne Kenneally and James Egglestone as Leila and Nadir were lovely, with beautiful voices. The sets were evocative – neither so bare nor so adorned that they distracted from the singing. But I find it hard to make those judgements, because for the most part, I was simply caught up in the music and the drama. I think I have been bitten by the opera bug: I will be going back for more. And I will be watching out for Grant Doyle. His performance was wonderful, and I would like to see and hear him again.
*How on earth can he do that? I know that when I sing, if I am too tense, my voice seizes up and all I produce is an agonised squawk. But he produced beautiful tones.