The Pearl Fishers, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2014Posted on 17 June 2014
Penny Woolcock’s stunning production of Pearl Fishers, with its gloriously ramshackle sets, blaze of South Indian colour, and views of pearl divers sweeping through the clear blue waters, first appeared four years ago. She has now returned to direct this revival, which is superior to the original in terms of vocal performances.
This time Sophie Bevan sang the role of the priestess Leïla despite being struck down that morning by temporary sickness, and her beautiful vocal clarity and emotional power was a driving force. Noble singing from Canadian tenor John Tessier as her beloved Nadir, and his Act I soliloquy recalling their past meeting was beautifully delivered. As his erstwhile friend and rival Zurga, George von Bergen came over with great vocal and dramatic strength after a weak start, and his interaction with Leïla in Act III was electrifying.
Strong singing from Barnaby Rea in the bass role of Nourabad the high priest, and huge power from the chorus. This opera, famed for its Act I duet between Nadir and Zurga, contains many other wonderful moments, and Leïla’s Act II soliloquy was beautifully sung by Sophie Bevan. And apart from the singing, the emotion in the music was brilliantly realised by Jean-Luc Tingaud, conducting the ENO for the first time.
When librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré heard the music — a script by these two old hands was handed to the 24 year old Bizet after his return from a three-year stint in Rome — they regretted not providing the young composer with one of their better efforts, and the exciting energy of Bizet’s composition was fully evident in the hands of Monsieur Tingaud.
Musically these ENO performances are not to be missed, and their visual side brings out the beauty and precariousness of life on the Indian or Sri Lankan coast. A rolling silk portrays the harbour waters on which a small diving skiff dips to and fro, and the exquisite beauty of the village built on the rocks, visible by its tiny lights during the night, contrasts with the poverty of the material world.
When this opera was revived after Bizet’s death the management in Paris disliked the ending where Zurga, having realised Leïla was the girl who once saved his life, sets fire to the village so the lovers can escape. They commissioned a different ending, and the resulting confusion compounded by loss of the original score (here played in a reconstruction by Brad Cohen) discouraged later revivals of this opera. Here we are back with the Urtext, and Penny Woolcock’s production brings out the pathos of the ending as villagers appear carrying children asphyxiated by the fire. The fragility of life meets passion and remorseful destruction, all with marvellous musical and vocal power.
Performances continue on various dates until July 5 — for details click here.