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ENO The Pearl Fishers, Sophie Bevan [Photo by ENO/Mike Hoban]
18 Jun 2014

The Pearl Fishers, ENO

Writing in a programme article to accompany this first revival of her 2010 production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, director Penny Woolcock remarks upon the opera’s ‘plethora of beautiful arias, duets, choral and orchestral music … and catchy tunes that spawn earworms’.

The Pearl Fishers, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sophie Bevan as Leïla

Photos © ENO/Mike Hoban


Certainly, the opera is more than a one-hit wonder, and its celebrated ‘lollipop’, the tenor-baritone duet ‘Au fond du temple saint’, is one of many melodic gems in a sumptuous score.

It’s what holding them together that’s the problem. Cormon and Carré’s flimsy tale of the forbidden love of two best friends for one High Priestess suffers from one-dimensional characterisation and a generous dose of the nineteenth-century French obsession with ‘the Orient’ — the armchair traveller hoping for an authentic Eastern sojourn has to wade through such nonsense as the notion of the ancient Ceylonese venerating Hindu gods with European music.

Woolcock’s solution is a visual one; and in places it works. Designer Dick Bird’s opening image of elegant divers swooping and plunging with astonishingly balletic grace to scoop pearls from the ocean bed is arresting (although it was a pity that conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud did not coax a similarly exotic aural kaleidoscope from the pit during the rather lacklustre overture). Later, billowing silk evokes the ebbing moonlit waves, and these swell in the storm sequence into a raging video tsunami which surges and heaves, threatening to over-spill into the auditorium.

ENO_PF_03.gifJohn Tessier as Nadir, Sophie Bevan as Leïla and George von Bergen as Zurga

Jen Schriever’s lighting enhances the fantasy: the colours evoke the opulent emeralds and aquamarines of the omnipresent waters, and the burnished ochres and oranges of the tropical sun. The change from day to night — as the dockside dwellings fade into shadow, beneath the glint and shimmer of distant hillside lights — is magical.

In an attempt to inject some realism into the orientalist schmaltz, Woolcock and Bird transfer the action to modern Sri Lanka and construct a chaotic shanty-town of corrugated shacks, the barbed wire and concrete jumble suggesting an ideological slant relating to global warming and/or western commercial exploitation. I wondered for a moment whether the be-suited Westerners wandering through the hovels were corrupt pearl-factory owners, but as they disappeared after the opening act I assume they were simply goggle-eyed tourists.

While these are worthy touches, they are not sustained; static mise en scènerather than enlivening dramatic threads. Kevin Pollard’s costumes lean towards cliché and, more importantly, Woolcock offers the cast almost no direction. It doesn’t matter what they are singing or in what context — making eternal vows of loyalty, swearing undying devotion, threatening revenge — there is scarcely any physical or visual interaction between the principals who stand, sit or lie stock still, facing the audience. Only in the fight sequence between Leila and Zurga in Act 3 is there any sense of choreographed dynamism.

One problem is that the set is cramped; there is just room enough for the chorus to assemble collectively amid the staggering lean-tos and for the principals to walk to the front of the stage, or climb the side-stairs. The result is that the ENO chorus looks rather ‘amateur’, although after a slightly hesitant start, they are on cracking musical form. ‘Brahma divin Brahma!’ at the close of Act 2 was fervent and resounding.

ENO_PF_02.gifA scene from The Pearl Fishers

A pre-curtain announcement warned us that Sophie Bevan was suffering from a virus but it didn’t seem to affect her performance as the High Priestess Leila too adversely, although perhaps there was initially a sense that she was saving her brightest sparkle for the big moments. ‘Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre’, when Leila reflects on her past secret assignations with Nadir, was persuasive and charming, and Bevan bloomed in the lovers’ passionate Act 2 duet. In Act 3, despite being thrown around by an enraged, vengeful Zurga, her voice was characteristically accurate and vivid.

As Nadir, John Tessier made good use of his attractive tenor in his Act 1 aria ‘Je crois entendre encore’: the phrasing was flexible, the tone appealing and the upper register unforced as Tessier conveyed both Nadir’s rapturous devotion and his essential honour. But, his voice is quite light-weight and he didn’t quite have the resonance to carry the long, arching lines in the duet with George von Bergen’s Zurga. Von Bergen had more punch and power, and his diction was superb; the Act 3 aria ‘L’orage est calmé’ was full of feeling as Zurga expresses his remorse for his angry condemnation of Nadir. But, both men needed more variety of colour to compensate for the lack of psychological complexity provided by the librettists. Barnaby Rea was a full-voiced Nourabad but his dreadful costume was a hindrance to any notable dramatic impact.

After their uninspiring start, the ENO instrumentalists shone in some exquisite solos, with horn and flute particularly impressive, but Tinguad never quite drew playing of sufficient lyric passion from his players. Martin Fitzpatrick’s rather staid translation added scant fire or frisson to the mix.

Dissatisfaction with the ending — Bizet’s own and that of the critics — resulted in various versions and no clear picture of the composer’s preferred form. Woolcock leaves us with the depressing image of suffering children being carried from the all-consuming flames of the burning ghat, the pyre ignited by Zurga in order to facilitate the lovers’ escape; a somewhat dispiriting end given the selfless nature of Zurga’s sacrifice.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Leïla, Sophie Bevan; Nadir, John Tessier; Zurga, George von Bergen; Nourabad, Barnaby Rea; Director, Penny Woolcock; Conductor, Jean-Luc Tingaud; Set Designer, Dick Bird; Costume Designer, Kevin Pollard; Lighting Designer, Jen Schriever; Video Designer, 59 Productions Ltd; Choreographer, Andrew Dawson; Translator, Martin Fitzpatrick. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 16th June 2014.

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