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English National Opera, <em>The Pearl Fishers</em>
20 Oct 2016

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

English National Opera, The Pearl Fishers

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Claudia Boyle

Photo credit: Robbie Jack


The Pearl Fishers is an early work (Bizet's first full length opera) with a profound faulty libretto which a more experience composer would have surely done something to remedy. After Bizet's death attempts were made to correct and improve the work, but often these resulted in the removal of Bizet's more innovative details. ENO uses an edition by Martin Fitzpatrick which attempts to go back to Bizet's original intentions, and was performed in Fitzpatrick's own translation.

Woolcock's production, which has also been seen at the Met in New York, has undergone some development since it was new in 2010. Its 2016 incarnation (I did not see ENO's previous revival) emphasised the difference between the childhood friends, the headman cum political operator Zurga (Jacques Imbrailo) with his heavies were firmly in Western dress, contrasting with the local garb of the fisherman Nadir (Robert McPherson) and the rest of the village. Whilst Bizet's music is only loosely oriental (unsurprisingly as the libretto original set the story in Mexico), Woolcock, Bird and Pollard set the piece firmly in 20th century Ceylon/Sri Lanka with videos of real storm inundations between the scenes.

All three of the principals seemed to take a little time to warm-up and you felt that the production was not quite bedded in, and that it will settle admirably as the run progresses. A perennial gripe when performing 19th French opera nowadays is problem of style, and here the cast seem to have been very much left on their own. Roland Böer conducted a sympathetic, if perhaps four-square, account of the score but I thought that principals could have done with helping more in a unified approach to Bizet's music. It is after all an early work and heavily indebted to predecessors like Fromental Halevy (also his father-in-law), so inculcating a sense of style would have been helpful. As it was the three seemed to each go their own way, providing different approaches to Bizet's music.

Soprano Claudia Boyle as Leila combined fragile charm with a certain strength of personality, but Leila is a rather passive character and it was Boyle's command of the coloratura which counted. She has quite a slim timbre, and I wondered whether she had been listening to Mady Mesple, certainly something in her performance evoked the French soprano. But Boyle had a rather Italianate approach to the passagework, and I would have liked a greater sense of line and a sense of burnished sheen.

I last heard Robert McPherson as Percy in Welsh National Opera's production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena and his voice still has the same interesting combination of narrow focus and forward brilliant tone. It is a very distinctive voice, but one which makes a great deal of sense in this repertoire, giving us a sound something closer to the pre-War style of performance. It was a shame that is big aria was in Act One, because he really only seemed to get into his vocal stride in the second act. But his combination of lyric flexibility with extensive use of head voice was rather notable and greatly daring. Whilst there was the odd wobble at the very top, it was lovely to hear a tenor performing with something approaching the correct vocal style for the music.

The role of Zurga is vastly under written, so that in Act One Jacques Imbrailo was left to look good, spending a lot of time glad-handing the locals but in the famous duet he and McPherson turned in a beautifully crafted performance with a subtlety which reflected Bizet's original rather than the more tub-thumping revised version which is more popular. It was in Act Three, with his big solo scene that Imbrailo got something to work with. Whilst I thought his style owed a little too much to later 19th century opera, there was no doubting the thrilling intensity and psychological acuity of the performance.

The role the high priest Nourabad is not particularly big or rewarding, but James Creswell performed nobly and used his resonant voice to great effect. Almost a a star in its own right, the chorus were on thrilling form and thanks to Bird's tiered set we were able to see and hear them in a way which is not always possible.

Whilst I commend and appreciate the use of Bizet's original, there is no doubting that the final scene is rather under written. Musically Bizet contributes little as memorable as the burning of the village which the designers conjured up. Martin Fizpatrick's admirably straightforward English translation rather brought out the prosaic nature of the libretto, and you could not help feeling that singing it in French, or rather more poetic English might have been an improvement.

But the real star of the show remains the production, with its thrilling designs and wonderful images of the pearl divers going about their business. For all Penny Woolcock's desire to introduce an element of realism, this is a brilliantly theatrical show.

Robert Hugill

Georges Bizet: The Pearl Fishers

Leila: Claudia Boyle, Nadir: Robert McPherson, Zurga: Jacques Imbrailo, Nourabad: James Creswell; Director: Penny Woolcock, conductor: Roland Böer.

English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 19th October 2016.

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