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Bizet’s The Pearlfishers at QPAC

Whenever I’m researching opera (which I need to do a lot of when I write about it – I am to opera what Pauline Hanson is to elocution), it strikes me that the genre’s real tragedies are the ones that happened behind the scenes. Take Georges Bizet, composer of The Pearlfishers, now showing at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre.

Born in 1838, Bizet’s prodigious talent was widely recognised early on, culminating in his being awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship, aged 19. Despite three years of study, he struggled to be recognised by the major opera companies of Paris, who seemed intent only to stage established classics (visions of the Brandis era NPEA flash before my eyes). Forced to work as an arranger and transcriber of other people’s work, he attempted many projects while agitating for success. At the age of 24, he completed The Pearlfishers, which audiences loved but the critics thought was balls. Disheartened, he joined the National Guard in his early 30s and served during the Franco-Prussian war, before eventually returning to composing. His masterpiece, Carmen, debuted in 1875 after long delays caused by Bizet’s fear that the subject matter would be deemed too offensive for audiences. Convinced it was going to be an epic failure, Bizet died of a heart attack three months later at just 37. It’s a bit bloody ‘Home & Away’, isn’t it? Stories of forlorn lovers kinda pale by comparison.

Nevertheless, the tribulations of Léila and Nadir remain a poignant story in Opera Q’s current revival of The Pearlfishers, due primarily to director Michael Gow’s revision of the antiquated plot. Tackling Bizet’s problematic depiction of The East head on (he openly acknowledges cultural inaccuracies in the accompanying program), Gow has repositioned the characters slightly to find sentiments that resonate with contemporary audiences. Though it’s still uncomfortable to see a chorus of primarily white people wearing saris, bindis, and vaguely Indian-looking stage makeup in 2017, the potential to offend is tempered by nuanced performances that don’t play to clichés, and a truly beautiful set by designer Robert Kemp. Leads Emma Matthews (Léila), Aldo Di Toro (Nadir) and Grant Doyle (Zurga) are perfectly cast – all three elicited sighs from the opening night crowd with their effortless vocals. Accompanied by Queensland’s beloved symphony orchestra, impeccable under conductor Graham Abbott’s baton, Bizet’s underrated opera is elevated to something even the Lyric Theatre’s woeful acoustics can’t dampen.

Bizet never got to see The Pearlfishers restaged after its awkward debut. I can’t imagine how he’d have reacted to being told it would be such an unexpected delight 155 years later.

Opera Q’s The Pearlfishers plays the Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, until 3 June 2017.

For tickets, check out QPAC’s website here.

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