Too Much Sangfroid, Too Little Passion in Pearl Fishers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet, The Pearl Fishers: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Jean-Luc Tingaud (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 18.6.2014. (JPr)

The Pearl Fishers c Mike Hoban
The Pearl Fishers c Mike Hoban

Leïla: Sophie Bevan
Nadir: John Tessier
Zurga: George von Bergen
Nourabad: Barnaby Rea

Director: Penny Woolcock
Set Designer: Dick Bird
Costume Designer: Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer: Jen Schriever
Video Designer: 59 Productions Ltd
Choreographer: Andrew Dawson
Translator: Martin Fitzpatrick

 John Berry, ENO’s artistic director, wrote in his introduction to The Pearl Fishers in the programme how ‘We’re delighted to welcome back to ENO Penny Woolcock and her creative team for this first revival of this production at the London Coliseum. We are thrilled the Metropolitan Opera has joined as co-producer and has worked closely with us to develop the visual language further and enhance the already wonderful images created by our expert aerial artists.’

 The director, Penny Woolcock, in her introduction writes about her vision of the opera: ‘At its heart there is a painful love triangle, a tale of lust and rejection, loss and longing, religious strictures, forbidden sex and lonely nights. This dark story takes place against the backdrop of extreme poverty, flimsy shacks easily washed away at any second by the colossal power of the sea. The private desires of Leila, Nadir and Zurga are played out in a ramshackled fishing village inhabited by destitute families pinning their hopes on the songs of a priestess to defend them as they try and scrap a living diving for pearls on a breath. There is no mention of a pearl ever being found.’

I did not see this production in 2010 and cannot comment on any changes though I suspect it seems the marvellous ‘swimming’ scenes we get might have been expanded – and perhaps maybe Leo Warner’s video designs too. At the end of Act II the basic coastal shanty-town setting we have seen is engulfed by a catastrophic tsunami event with the water shown in such dramatic foment that I was beginning to feel a little seasick watching it. Before that the interval had dragged on much longer than advertised and I wondered whether ‘health and safety’ inspectors were checking the real fire effect that over-emphasised how Zurga sets light to the village in order to save Leila (who had rescued him when he was a young fugitive) and his friend Nadir. The story is all rather implausible and remarkably the librettists, Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, apologised to Bizet during his short lifetime about how sorry they were not to have given him one of their better effort. All of this is compounded by having it sung in English when the lack of drama, passion or threat in what we are hearing becomes self-evident. Penny Woolcock wants to tweak our consciences over the effects of global warming, the pollution of the seas and the exploitation of the poorer nations for third world consumerism but in the end The Pearl Fishers isn’t substantial enough to sustain this. Even though some darkness intrudes – through the physical violence of Zurga to Leila in Act II and the dead children at the end of the opera – what we actually see is hints at the orientalism the director despises with some pretty music, some accomplished singing and a lot of stock operatic gestures.

Anyway most memorable is how as the overture is played a hazy blue gauze makes us believe we are below the sea and divers (on hidden wires) ‘swim’ down from above and their graceful movements are matched by digitally projected bubbles from 59 Productions. It really looks as if they are swimming. But what was going on in Act II when with Leila in the foreground reflecting on former times when she and Nadir would meet together secretly (‘Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre’ ‘In the dark night as in days gone by’) – and as Nadir is supposedly scaling a cliff to get to her – a figure is again shown swimming down the back of stage!

The action is no longer in ancient Ceylon but updated to ‘a coastal village in the Far East’. There is a large billboard in the background along with small wooden hovels on different levels and several oil drum floats. Leila is clearly still a priestess of Brahma and Nourabad, a high priest, quite who Zurga and Nadir are I wasn’t so sure. Zurga seems to be a westerner exploiting the villagers in some way, he distributes face masks and money in order to be voted their leader. As for Nadir he looks like an Aussie surfer who has just stopped off in this village as part of his backpacking around the Far East.

What this opera cries out for is four star singers giving it – as an old singer friend of mine calls it – ‘some welly’ and a conductor less respectful to the score. I suspect that is what will happen when this production finally arrives in New York. John Tessier’s Nadir seems a bit of a drip (in more ways than one here given the setting) and his voice is light and attractive with excellent diction. I wanted him to impose himself on the music more and would have like a bigger sound. I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry between him and Sophie Bevan’s Leila. There did seem a genuine feeling of a ‘bromance’ though between him and best buddy – at least for a short while – George von Bergan’s Zurga, his rival for Leila’s affections. The famous ‘Au fond du temple saint’ duet was pleasant and throughout von Bergan’s stalwart baritone brought as much genuine emotion to his character’s dilemma as Bizet allows him. Barnaby Rea as Nourabad has little to sing but was imposing in all he did. Sophie Bevan sang with exquisite control of the brief coloratura elements and had a beguiling limpid quality to her voice. I wasn’t sure she was entirely at her ease but she conveyed well how Leila is mostly resigned to her fate and that things will not work out well for her and Nadir … that is until she gets angrier about her impending fate in Act III.

The chorus are important in the work and shone throughout, though they mostly just sit or stand around and then go offstage in order to come back later. Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud, was making his ENO debut, and is apparently a specialist in French nineteenth-century music so there was too much lingering over the beautiful sounds from the orchestra – too much sangfroid – when more passion was needed to make something of Bizet’s other opera.

Jim Pritchard


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