mon 18/11/2019

The Pearl Fishers, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Pearl Fishers, English National Opera

The Pearl Fishers, English National Opera

Second-tier opera in visually impressive and dramatically improved revival

Leïla (Sophie Bevan) arrives at the villagePhoto: Mike Hoban

Before curtain-up on the opening night of this revival of Penny Woolcock’s production of The Pearl Fishers, ENO's head of casting arrived on stage with a microphone. No doubt delightful company in person, he was an unwelcome sight here. Sophie Bevan had a stomach bug, he explained – the disappointment was palpable. But she'd be bravely singing anyway – grateful applause broke out. In the end, our goodwill was not called upon in the least, since Bevan's voice in her debut as Leïla was as strong and agile as ever.

As the overture plays this production offers its most visually arresting moment, with a shimmering blue gauze giving an underwater feel and divers on wires plunging from above, their movements followed by digitally projected bubbles. This combination of technology, clever lighting and good old-fashioned stagecraft creates another stunning effect at the end of Act II as a billowing black satin sea merges with projected waves to engulf the stage. Hat tips to Dick Bird (set designer), Jen Schriever (lighting) and video design from 59 Productions

None of this, unfortunately, saves the piece itself from being implausible, especially at its denouement

The first act’s rickety shanty-town set is enjoyably detailed and effective in placing the action on different levels, creating striking tableaux vivants in combination with Kevin Pollard’s colourful costume designs on the ragtag army of chorus and actors. The chorus is frequently called upon in this opera, and ENO’s stalwarts do a fine job. The action takes place not in ancient Ceylon, but in modern day Sri Lanka, as signposted by a looming billboard, corrugated tin roofs and oil drum floats. The point is a subtle one – that impoverished people still produce luxury goods today – and it’s in the background rather than laboured.

None of this, unfortunately, saves the piece itself from being implausible, especially at its denouement – even for champion disbelief-suspending opera audiences. But it is a tighter and more dramatically engaging performance than in its previous outing in 2010, and Woolcock's production rattles along nicely, despite lacking the set-piece hit parade of Carmen, to which it is inevitably compared. Martin Fitzpatrick’s translation succeeds in maintaining a consistent tone, somewhat olde worlde, but poetic enough to match the music. A bum note is Zurga’s very realistic violence towards Leïla in Act III – its shock value does not feel backed up by a dramatic purpose.

John Tessier as Nadir has an attractively bright and reedy voice with excellent diction. One could have certainly cast Nadir as a bigger, brasher tenor, but Tessier held his own, and worked well with Bevan and, crucially, in the famous Act I duet with Zurga (George von Bergen). It wasn’t, perhaps, devastating, but it was certainly lovely. Barnaby Rea’s Nourabad deserves a special mention – it’s not a role with a huge amount to do, but he was close to stealing the show when he got a chance.

Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud, in his ENO debut, lived up to his billing as a specialist in French 19th-century music, squeezing every drop of va-va-voom from this second-tier work.

ENO's The Pearl Fishers at the London Coliseum until July 5

This combination of technology, clever lighting and good old-fashioned stagecraft creates another stunning effect


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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