The Pearl Fishers, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, June 2010Posted on 6 June 2010
This is Bizet’s first staged work, written when he was 24, and performed here in a very attractive production by Penny Woolcock. More on the production later, but first a few words about Bizet. After a three year stint in Rome, he returned to Paris to be handed an opera libretto written by two old hands who, when they heard his score, regretted not having given him one of their better efforts. The libretto is indeed a bit weak, though some of the music is glorious and the tenor/baritone duet in Act I is justifiably famous. But that’s not the only fine piece of music in this opera, and the tenor/soprano duet in Act II was engagingly sung by Alfie Boe as the pearl diver Nadir, and Hanan Alattar as the priestess Leïla.
Before the start of this June 4th performance we were told Ms. Alattar was suffering from a sore throat, but after a weak start she gained depth during the evening. Then, after Act I, it was announced that Alfie Boe had caught the sore throat, and after showing a heroic timbre to his voice in the first Act it looked as if we would be deprived of his talents. But he continued to perform strongly. Quinn Kelsey sang the role of Zurga the village headman, pacing himself for the bigger moments, and Freddie Tong was the high priest, but needed more vocal depth and stage presence.
In later years, Bizet judged this opera rather severely and it wasn’t revived after its first performances in 1863, until being restaged in Milan in 1886, more than ten years after his death. Unfortunately the original orchestral score was lost, and this performance was based on a recent reconstruction due to Brad Cohen, well conducted by Rory Macdonald with magnificent singing from the chorus. The Royal Opera will give a concert performance in October, conducted by Antonio Pappano, with Gerald Finley as Zurga, but don’t miss this ENO production for its visual impact.
Penny Woolcock’s fine production, with sets and costumes by Dick Bird and Kevin Pollard, gave a beautiful context for the story. As soon as the first bars of the prelude come from the orchestra we are treated to pearl divers sweeping down to the seabed through clear blue waters, and then as Act I opens we see ramshackle dwellings for the local people, built on a hill overlooking the bay. At nightfall small lights come on and it’s magical. There are other enchanting moments such the duet between Nadir and Zurga when two local men hang out a tatty cloth behind which the visage of the goddess seems to emerge. Water is ever present, and the harbour waters are portrayed by a rolling silk on which a small skiff dips to and fro. In Act II when Nadir swims to the sacred enclosure to meet Leïla we see a projection of his amazing underwater swim, well worthy of a pearl diver. The beauty of the blue waters contrasts wonderfully with the poverty of the material world, giving just the right context for the people’s superstitious religious faith to hold sway.
This excellent production continues until July 8 — for more details click here.