Pearl Fishers reviews

Frank Ruhrmund in The Cornishman, 5 September 2002

Decommissioning, if “The Pearl Fishers” is anything to go by, was even more rife in 19th century Ceylon (Sri Lanka to those born since 1972) than it is in 21st century Cornwall.

But while there may not be much fishing in Surrey Opera’s production of Bizet’s “other opera” there is, as to be expected, a great deal of singing and of a standard to make it an excellent catch.

Conducted and directed by Jonathan Butcher who proves to be a first-class skipper, and sung in English in a translation by Geoffrey Dunn, it is staged with a “magical splendour” At the same time, while restraint is shown and there are just enough swaying palms, sea shells, and glitz to suggest that it is all happening on a Sinhalese rather than a Cornish shore, it is not clear why the make-up department should have decided to make some of those who live there more sun-burnt than others.

This may be an island in the sun, but it’s hardly a holiday home; a place where blood sports are practised, where life hangs on the thread of a necklace, and where – and I can’t resist this – Kandyfloss is definitely off the menu, it’s difficult to believe in anything that happens here. All credit then to the principals, at least those who were in action on the opening night (there are two teams), for breathing life into such a slight fiction.

Talking of life, curiously enough, all are at their best when faced with death. The lovers, Zoë Milton-Brown as the veiled Leila, whose coloratura is something else, and Randy Nichol as Nadir, who lives up to his Christian name, and Paul Bray as the watchful and thunderous Nourabad, are in fine form, but it is Tim Baldwin who, as Zurga the Great, is elected chief at the start, is as commanding in regret as he is in rage, and is still chief at the end.

A final word for Bizet’s melodies, and the members of the chorus and the orchestra who deserve Brahma’s blessing for helping us to enjoy and swallow – hook, line and sinker- such a flimsy, fishy tale.

Donald Madgwick in the Croydon Advertiser, 27 September 2002

Georges Bizet was very far from being a one-work wonder, but his reputation mainly rests on Carmen, his last opera. Les Pêcheurs de Perles, dating from about a decade earlier, is a work of much more uneven quality which is not helped by a somewhat feeble libretto.

Even its title is misleading, for the pearl fishers might just as well be mountaineers or hang gliders for all the relevance they have to the story. It is a tale of a broken vow, an old debt repair and the triumph of lover over vengeance.

That said, Surrey Opera gave their patrons an exciting evening in an exotic Ceylonese setting, with some rousing singing by the four principals and a splendid orchestra under its conductor Jonathan Butcher, who also directed.

With its seashore location and its terrific storm in Act Two, this production must have been an unforgettable experience when it was performed earlier in the month at the open-air Minack Theatre, Cornwall. It was memorable enough even at the Ashcroft.

The three leads were all sung by alternate pairs. On the night I attended, Nadir and Zurga were played respectively by the tenor Randy Nichol and the Baritone Tim Baldwin, the priestess Leila by the soprano Zoë Milton-Brown.

Nadir and Zurga once loved her but renounced their love to preserve their friendship and the pair movingly joined in the famous Friendship duet, whose refrain recurs throughout the opera as a kind of leitmotif. The equally well-known tenor romance of remembrance was ardently sung, but without those sweetly lyrical head notes spun long ago by Beniamino Gigli.

It must be said that Leila, whose proper job is to pray for the fishermen’s safety, is something of a lay figure, but passion and pathos were present in Zoë Milton-Brown’s interpretation. The rich bass tones of Paul Bray clothed the part of the old priest Nourabad with a grave and stately dignity.

Choral singing was uniformly excellent and the English translation was by Geoffrey Dunn: not a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but sympathetically phrased for the singers.

Margaret Getting in the Croydon Guardian

The Ashcroft Theatre welcomed Surrey Opera’s excellent production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers - and what an audio and visual feast it was.

Zoë Milton-Browns’s delightful soprano voice had wonderful clarity and her sensitive interpretation of the role of Leila showed experience beyond her years. Randy Nichol as the principal tenor was superb as Nadir, with a strong voice and a good range. The emotional and vigorous performance of Tim Baldwin as the duped Zurga was certainly up to his own exacting standards and well performed. The famous duet was sung with tenderness and vocal precision.

The audience clearly enjoyed the soaring voices of the company’s talented and confident chorus, whose members moved around the stage with precision and enthusiasm.

Jonathan Butcher’s well balanced orchestra impressed without overpowering the soloists, and the beautiful score of this magical opera was a joy. The costumes, colourful and vibrant, were a visual treat ,as was the ingenious and versatile set.

This was an evening of high artistic standard and great enjoyment.

Geraldine Durrant in The East Grinstead Courier, 2 October, 2002

There was one moment during Surrey Opera’s Friday night performance at Chequer Mead when they must have felt they were casting The Pearl fishers before swine.

An overlong “lights up” between acts encouraged most of the audience to believe it was the interval, and as the curtain went up again, they rushed guiltily to put down their interval drinks and crept back chastened into the auditorium.

But far from spoiling the evening, the shared joke of this unscheduled break only added to its many enjoyments.

And what a lot there was to enjoy during this simply marvellous production. Surrey Opera’s cast was uniformly excellent, and did full justice to Bizet’s story of love, jealousy and friendship betrayed. Bethany Halliday, Friday night’s Leila looked lovely enough to have sparked the rival affections of old friends Nadir and Zurga and had a voice to match.

She soared through her solos and, when defying Zurga and begging for Nadir’s life, she conveyed very beautifully the pride and tenderness of a woman in love with the desperation of one prepared to set her own life at nothing if it would only save that of her lover.

And in Robert Watson she had worthy leading man. Robert’s tenor voice had a sweet timbre which, with his endearing appearance, made him a worthy hero. And his Act One duet with old friend and love rival Time Hicks (as Zurga) sent all the requisite shivers down the spine.

Paul Bray was also impressive as Nourabad – the priest, and the scene in which he and his fellow villagers condemned the lovers was truly thrilling.

Surrey Opera is also blessed in its chorus whose command of light and shade gave texture to the plot and provided some the evening’s many highlights.

Chequer Mead was the final venue in a three theatre tour for the company, and, on this showing before a packed house, they will have earned themselves new fans – and a ready audience for their next, eagerly awaited, production.