For anyone wondering whether to see an opera I think that The Pearl Fishers, by that most accessible of composers, Bizet, illustrates why you should give it a go. I would wager that there were quite a few newbies in the audience on Press Night as, after each aria, there was a short smattering of applause of the type you would get at a musical. In opera you wait until the end of the Act. Regardless, the performances were worth all the applause they could get.

The main reason I was impressed by this production as being a great advert for the medium, however, was that it contains one of my favourite pieces of music of any genre, the duet Au Fond du Temple Saint. You might not recognise the name but will certainly be familiar with the tune as it has been used in various other situations. I have seen and heard it performed many times on tv, radio and once in a live concert but always by two male singers standing at a microphone and belting it out for all they were worth, in the opera though it is sung more intimately by two childhood friends who meet after many years and are relaxing whilst catching up on each others’ exploits. It gives the whole aria a different vibe, which I found to be far preferable. I had one reservation, in that it appeared quite early in Act One so I thought that would be it, but the tune is used throughout the opera so all was well. To get you in the mood why not listen to this rendition by going to it was recorded in 1950 but is one of the few versions I have heard where the singers are sympathetic to the music rather than in competition with each other. The rendition is by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill, the former was Swedish, and anyone who was a fan of the original subtitled series of Wallander will know that he named his dog Jussi after this singer. Now I have got that out of the way, I suppose I had better review the opera!

The plot is of the far-fetched variety, being the story of two childhood friends; Zurga, sung by Quirijn de Lang, and Nadir, Nico Darmanin, who, when they were much younger and travelling together, had both fallen in love with a priestess, Liela, sung by Sophia Theodorides. Rather than fall out they vowed to each other not to pursue a relationship with her. Zurga is now one of a community of itinerant workers who have arrived at a beach where they set up camp and ready themselves for the precarious venture of fishing for pearls during the season. He is a suave character compared with the others, and says that the workers need to elect a leader. They unanimously ask him to do the job and he accepts. Shortly after his election his old buddy, Nadir turns up, which is when they chew the fat and sing the song.

The Chorus of Opera North, as the villagers assembling for the start of the pearl fishing season.

Needing all the help they can get in their pursuit of pearls in treacherous waters, their high priest, Nourabad, James Cresswell, presents a priestess to the members as her singing will pacify the the spirits of the sea, sky and land. You are not going to believe this, but the priestess just happens to be Leila, now what are the chances of that? Leila has taken an oath of chastity on pain of death, so she can concentrate on her job, and her reward for keeping the divers safe will be the finest pearl they catch. While Zurga is warning her of the consequences of failing to keep her vow, she recognises Nadir.

After recognising her singing voice Nadir speaks in private with Leila and admits that he had been back to the temple to listen to her sing just after they first met and has continued to admire her from afar.

Leila, Sophia Theodorides, and Nadir, Nico Darmanin as Nadir, having their illicit tryst.

Nourabad tells Leila that the fishermen have returned safely and she can sleep until morning. He says that, although alone, she will be protected and has nothing to fear as long as she keeps her vow. During their conversation she tells him that when she was a small child she helped a fugitive hide from his pursuers after which the man gave her a necklace as a thank you gift.

Once alone, Leila falls asleep but she is awoken by Nadir and they reminisce about their first meeting and acknowledge their mutual love. He says he will return the following night. As he is leaving a storm breaks out and they are discovered by Nourabad. He grasses them up to both Zurga and the rest of the community who demand their execution. This is where it gets really weird. Zurga wants to protect his mate so intervenes but when Leila removes her veil he realises who she is and goes ballistic, ordering their deaths. The thing is that she has not been wearing a veil and, although it answered the question in my mind as to why Zurga didn’t recognise her by her looks and Nadir only twigged who she was by her singing.

Quirijn de Lang as Zurga and Sophia Theodorides as Leila after the non-existent veil has been removed – or not!

I realise that it can be no easy feat for a soprano to reach the back row of the gods with a voice when wearing a veil, although a priestess should have no trouble communicating with gods, and it might affect her breathing, surely some form of face-covering could have been concocted by the costume department to convey the idea. We were given a 20 minute interval to ruminate on the matter.

The break seemed to have soothed Zurga somewhat, I should have asked what he was drinking, as his jealousy had subsided somewhat and he had decided to be lenient on the pair. Whilst he was telling Leila of this, he became overwhelmed by her beauty and flew into another jealous rage when he realised that it was Nadir she loved more than him.

James Cresswell as high priest and super grass Nourabad

If you have been paying attention you will know what is coming next. As she is being taken away to be executed she gives her necklace to an aide, with the request it be passed on to her mother. Zurga sees it and recognises it as the one he gave to a child who saved his life all those years before. Fancy that!

As the execution draws near and the community are gathered to watch, Zurga stops it pointing out that the settlement is on fire and they should go home to rescue the children and their belongings. This gives Leila and Nadir the chance to escape and we are left to contemplate the fate awaiting Zurga.

OK, so it was somewhat out there, but this is opera so anything is possible. The main thing is that the singing was superb, as was the playing by the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren. Quirijn de Lang has a wonderful baritone voice and is a regular guest singer at Opera North, I have seen him a few times but this piece made the most of his voice. The other three main singers; Nico Darmanin, tenor, James Cresswell, bass and Sophia Theodorides, Soprano, all were excellent. The Chorus of Opera North under Chorus Master Oliver Rundell were on their usual top form, so much so that in one passage, when they were singing behind Leila and Nadir, the soloists were all but drowned out. Fortunately it was only for a minute or so.

Quirijn de Lang as uber smooth Zurga

I had been looking forward to seeing this opera since I first saw it advertised several months ago, and, as with most eagerly anticipated events, there was an element of disappointment that it wasn’t as perfect as I thought it should be. Apart from the veil, or lack thereof, The chemistry between Zurga and Nadir seemed to be totally lacking with a strange coldness, quite alien to how old mates would react when meeting after so long. The way in which life seemed to have treated them differently might have had something to do with it. Zurba was wearing a full-length silk dressing gown, or a sharp suit throughout and making jewellery with his pearls, whilst Nadir was living up, or should that be down, to his name and clad in survival garb, obviously not rolling in cash. It was a bit like Noël Coward catching up with Johnny Depp in the Caribbean.

Adventurer Nadir, Nico Darmanin with his back against the ropes.

Finally, in the scene at the end when Zurba implores the members of the village to rush home to save their property and children, they more or less ignore him and carry on admiring the pearls they are wearing even though the flames are so fierce that they are mistaken for the sunrise. Hardly the pandemonium required to facilitate the escape of the lovers. I would have also thought it was worth a tip off to Social Services to report parental negligence.

The set, by Joanna Parker was very imaginative being monopolised by a large rope structure and some enormous pearls – they must have some fearsome sized oysters where it was located. The back of the predominantly black stage doubled as a video screen with waves during the first half and ropes during the second. Video design was by Ms Parker and Peter Mumford who also took care of the lighting which was also very effective. The black set matched the black costumes of the chorus who could sit in the background without being noticed until picked out by the spots. The Movement Director was Laïla Diallo, whose main challenge I thought was to safely get Leila to scale the rope part of the set whilst singing to the audience, but more dangerous, to get her back down again whilst still not looking at her footing.

Sophia Theodorides, as Leila, negotiating the precarious rope ladder.

The Director was Mathew Eberhardt, no stranger to Opera North.

I think that you are aware as to how warped my mind can get and I couldn’t help but be taken back to when I was a young kid and my dad decided he would take up jewellery making, an enterprise which lasted about two months. He told me about the different types of pearls; natural, whose name speaks for itself; simulated, those which are man-made to imitate the real thing and cultured where a piece of grit is inserted in an oyster to grow into a pearl. As they were very large I decided that they must be simulated but then I wondered if, by appearing in an opera, they could now count themselves as being cultured.

The Pearl Fishers is being performed at Leeds Grand Theatre on 25th, 27th, 31st May and 2nd June with a starting time of 7.00pm. For more details and tickets please go to

After the Leeds run it is touring in a concert version To Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Sage, Gateshead, Hull City Hall and Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham. For details and tickets go to

All images provided by Opera North. Photographs by James Glossop.

2 thoughts on “The Pearl Fishers from Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre

  1. love this
    This is a wonderful review of The Pearl Fishers opera! I loved how the author described the chemistry between the characters, the set design, and the impressive singing by the cast and chorus. My logical question for the author is: What do you think was the most memorable moment of the opera for you?


    1. Thank you for the comments, you are most generous. In answer to your question, without doubt the highlight was the duet between the two leading men. I had heard it many times over the years but loved how these two gave it an intimacy not normally conveyed. Once again, thank you.



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