Come to the opera!
The Pearl Fishers is finally here. While the local audience eagerly awaits the opera by George Bizet, the performers are now at the final daunting stage of putting the entire act together, combining singing, music, drama and dance.
Set on an island off the coast of Ceylon, The Pearl Fishers is a fiery love story involving the tribal chief Zurga, his companion Nadir and the veiled priestess Leila. Composed in 1863, the opera is also an interesting adaptation of Ceylonese society, its culture, language and people.
With less than a week for the performance, The Sunday Times caught up with Vikrant Subramanian (Zurga), Jamie Allen (Nadir), Aude Priya Engel (Leila), Philippe Désandré (Nourabad, the priest) as well as the conductor of the orchestra, Benjamin Levy.
“Zurga and Nadir are best friends who broke apart when they both fell in love with the same woman, Leila, whom they met at a temple in Kandy,” 18-year-old Vikrant who plays the role of the tribal chief said. “The Pearl Fishers begins with the reunion of the two friends after years of separation and in one of the most memorable duets of the entire production, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ (In the depths of the temple), Zurga and Nadir tell their story to the audience. They recall their former rivalry and a vow they made over the young beautiful woman agreeing not to pursuer her for the sake of their friendship,” he said.
Vikrant regards his character as young and courageous. “He is a leader. What is important is that the fishing community itself elects him. Zurga also goes through a variety of emotions throughout the opera, but at the end makes a very noble decision.” This would be the first lead role for the youngster who was part of the choir of The Pearl Fishers during its performance in India two years ago.
Rituals and beliefs play a major role in the opera. A virgin is brought in to pray for the fishermen in their upcoming pearl expedition. The veiled priestess is made to take an oath that she is a virgin and will pray for the protection of the fishermen. She is told that the punishment for disobedience is death. Little does Zurga know that this priestess is Leila, the woman he and Nadir fell in love with many years before.
“The music at this point gives a clue to the audience and the performers. A particular piece of music informs them of Leila’s arrival before she actually arrives,” says Benjamin. The 33-year-old is one of Europe’s most talented conductors with a team of leading musicians from the renowned Pelleas Orchestra that has drawn the interest of the French media to the production here.
He believes that the orchestra is not a mere accompaniment but rather a character in itself that helps convey emotions and meaning. “The music is exotic and very French. It’s almost a pre-Debussy style but at the same time contain aspects of Weber’s music. The opera can also be considered a forerunner to Carmen, Bizet’s masterpiece composed in 1875,” he said.
Joy is short-lived and loyalty is challenged when Nadir recognizes the veiled priestess as Leila. Past feelings are evoked within him and Nadir begins to sing of his love for her.“Nadir is a loyal friend, but he cannot control his love for Leila for which he ultimately has to pay a heavy price”, says Jamie, the Australian singer who was called in to play Nadir after the original cast member pulled out after an accident. Jamie had played lead roles in Madama Butterfly, Jenufa, Batavia and The Marriage of Figaro in Australia in 2006. Being well versed in Italian, Jamie says his French is “not all that good”, but believes that the opera requires more than knowing a little French. “The Recitative at the beginning is more Italian, but the Aria is a typical Romantic French piece. So the opera is a combination of styles,” he said.
The second act begins with Nourabad, the high priest of the Brahma, reminding Leila of her vow. “Nourabad’s role is to make people obey the laws, but then the priestess disobeys it and he is not happy about it,” Philippe says.
“Leila has a very tender heart. She considers love to be the most important thing,” adds the beautiful and talented Aude who played the same role in the 2005 production in India. Aude has also performed in some of the world’s best known operas including Don Giovanni, Carmen and La Traviata in 2006-2007.
“Leila dedicates her life to the love of God, but she has difficulty in controlling her emotions. She can’t resist love and temptation. But at the same time she is strong and courageous. For instance, she recalls a past act in which she rescued a fugitive by refusing to give away his hiding place to the authorities, which would have no doubt taken a lot of courage,” she said.
Leila tells this to Nourabad to assure the priest that she is capable of remaining faithful to her duties and also states that the fugitive whose life she saved had rewarded her with a necklace which she always wears.
It does not take long for the lovers to be reunited later that night. Leila and Nadir declare their love for each other through song. However, Leila begs Nadir to leave. He leaves, but is not able to go far, for he is captured by the guards when seen by Nourabad.
The lovers await their fate. An angry crowd seeks vengeance. The tribal chief arrives.“This is a classic love story and it is certainly something anyone can relate to. The opera is about love, friendship, betrayal, hatred, anger, desire and jealousy,” Aude said, adding that if she were to portray Sri Lanka it would have been somewhat more “ethnological” and different to Bizet’s depiction.
“Bizet was writing at a time when orientalism was a fashion. There was this dream about the east, the far away lands from where wealth and jewels were being brought into Europe,” she said.
Coming from India, Vikrant believes that The Pearl Fishers is in many ways very local and presents a fairly accurate portrayal of Ceylon.
“The opera tells the story of simple fishing folk. It is a rural community and rituals, religion and tradition play a major part, which is largely seen in this part of the world,” he said. “The setting of an opera was not taken into much consideration. What mattered the most was that it was a far away land, which allowed the librettists more freedom to explore new ideas,” says Benjamin.
Bizet had never visited this part of the world prior to composing the opera. Now the 150-member cast from France, India and Sri Lanka have mixed reactions to Bizet’s view. But one thing is certain. They are all very excited to be performing the opera in the country in which it is set.
Produced by Francis Wacziarg and directed by Patricia Panton, The Pearl Fishers will go on the boards on January 9 and 11 at the BMICH starting at 7 p.m.
A Neemrana Music Foundation production, the event is sponsored by Sri Lanka Telecom, Sri Lanka Tourist Board, the Indo-Sri Lanka Foundation, the French Embassy in Sri Lanka, Lafarge, Cultures France, BMICH Auditorium, Tourist Hotels’ Association of Sri Lanka, ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations), Delair Travels from Delmege group as travel partner, the Galle Literary Festival, MTV-MBC Network, Daily Mirror, The Sunday Times and Lankadeepa.
Tickets are available at Alliance Francaise (11, Barnes Place, Colombo 7), Vibrations (467, Union Place, Colombo 2), and the Gallery Café (2, Alfred House Road, Colombo 3).