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The Pearl Fishers

Georges Bizet
English National Opera
London Coliseum

The Pearl Fishers Credit: Catherine Ashmore
The Pearl Fishers Credit: Catherine Ashmore

The Pearl Fishers is a visual delight and comes as the final installment of ENO’s successful summer season.

This is the first revival of Penny Woolcock’s 2010 staging, and there has been some refreshing of the already impressive set designs. Opening with a stunning aerial pearl diving sequence, we are quickly transported to the watery world of this precarious Sri-Lankan fishing village. Woolcock makes great use of projections melding seamlessly into the action, submerging the audience into the flood waters.

Set in the modern day, there is a contrast between the more traditional garb of priest and villagers, with the suited officials and tourists (costumes Kevin Pollard). Dick Bird’s (set designer) ramshackle walkways and roughly erected shacks are festooned with swathes of died cloth, and the sari-clad cast move us to the eastern province. Amongst the paths lie billowing sheets that swell during the storm with great effect.

Despite wonderful tableaux, the first act has less musical variety, and the action onstage is fairly static. We are introduced to the famous duet of the score early on (which is satisfyingly weaved throughout the opera). Initially, the chorus's muddy diction, and George von Bergen’s (Zurga, the village headman) initial tendency to splurge, leaves the vocal standard lacking. However warm-voiced Sophie Bevan (Leila, Preistess) and her lover John Tessler (Nadir, pearl diver) soon rectified that.

Barring the iconic duet, The Pearl Fishers is certainly less famous than its sister opera Carmen. After a lyrical and graceful, albeit slower-paced, act one, Bizet showed off his true promised in acts two and three with heart-wrenchingly beautiful arias and dramatic, climactic chorus writing. The whole cast warms into the drama, the standard raising post-interval.

A simple plot: two men love the same forbidden woman Leila. Best friends from childhood, they both vow to abstain. Leila is brought to pray for the divers; she sings to the Gods requesting their safety during their dives. Nadir realises whom she is, is overcome with passion and breaks his vow. To pacify the gods, Leila must remain veiled throughout her prayers, her face seen by no man. Yet the pair are discovered embracing, and the ensuing storm is viewed by the villagers as an angry retribution from the Gods, and demand the pair's execution.

The story is not alien to our modern world; director Woolcock reminds us that there are housands of communities that live in perilous conditions, constantly on the edge of destruction. The superstitions of these communities are still in play today, and, despite the uncertainty in which they exist, forbidden love still occurs just as in any society.

Bizet was part of a host of artists depicting the orient, despite little research or realism. There was a great concept of otherness, and Woolcock does not ignore that this is a reasonably weak libretto laden with 19th century prejudice. Her attempts to pin on an extra-musical story, drawing parallels with modern day global warming, is only really apparent through the programme notes.

Much more interesting is the greater importance placed on the villagers themselves. Zurga frees the lovers by setting fire to his home village, in the process ignoring the fact that he’s just condemned many other families to death. The burnt children carried onstage is an interesting way to undermine the otherwise quickly wrapped-up plot.

Just four soloists carry the whole story. Bevan in particular shines; she delivers as always the whole package. Radiantly innocent and hopeful, her wonderful act two aria displays spellbinding sotto voce, which doesn’t stop her delivery of wonderfully clear and painted text. Tessler has an incredible vocal ease, but doesn’t quite match the stage presence of his colleagues. Despite misgivings about Bergen’s initial entry, the violent struggle in act three between him and Bevan show that the man can act.

Conducted by Jean Luc Tingaud, it was apparent that Bizet’s score has more going for it than expected. The Pearl Fishers is a hard show to stage as the librettists themselves apologized to Bizet for their weakly written text. Woolcock does a great job of combining multimedia and visual splendour to keep us engaged at least on an aesthetic level.

It's a wonderful opportunity to see Bizet’s lesser known opera, despite its flaws.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis