Pearl Fishers, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2016

Penny Woolcock’s visually stunning production, seen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York within the past year and now on its second ENO revival, has seen changes since the 2010 premiere. Less emphasis is given to the influence of the modern world on ancient Hindu society in this traditional fishing village, where Dick Bird’s sets give a wonderfully precarious sense to the life of a community subject to forces of nature wielded by the gods.

All images ENO/ Robbie Jack

All images ENO/ Robbie Jack

The chaste priestess Leïla takes on the task of communing with these gods to keep the fishermen safe, but the emotional forces of her rival admirers, Nadir whom she loves, and his bosom friend Zurga who has become headman, are too much for her, and for them. In the end Zurga arranges for Leïla and Nadir to escape their death sentence after realising she was the girl who once saved his life.

Nadir and Zurga

Nadir and Zurga

The relatively weak ending cannot live up to the tenor/ baritone duet of Act I to which Bizet’s music gives such power, and when the librettists, Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré heard his composition they regretted not giving the 24-year old composer one of their better efforts. In later years Bizet judged this early opera rather severely and it was only restaged after his death, and the belated success of Carmen. Emendations were made to both text and score, but this performance under the baton of Roland Böer, based on Brad Cohen’s reconstruction of the composer’s original intentions, was conducted as if every moment counts, fully bringing out the urgency of the music.

Zurga and Leïla

Zurga and Leïla

The superb chorus sang with huge power from the tiered strata of their ancient village, the calm but occasionally roiling sea an ever-visible presence achieved by marvellously simple stagecraft. One of the great strengths of Ms Woolcock’s production is seeing divers in the deep waters nearby, and when Nadir makes his rash visit to Leïla in her sanctuary it is through the water, unseen by human eyes.

Nadir and Laïla after Zurga sets the fire and rescues them

Nadir and Laïla after Zurga sets the fire and rescues them

In this hugely evocative staging, Jacques Imbrailo sang with wonderful strength and emotional sensitivity as the headman Zurga, and his superb performance was well complemented by James Cresswell’s eloquent depth in the bass role of Nourabad the high priest. As Leïla and her beloved Nadir, Claudia Boyle and Robert McPherson got off to a nervous start in Act I, but relaxed into their roles for the following acts. Her pleading with Zurga in Act III came over with great passion and the lovers sang a beautifully emotional duet towards the end.

This is one of ENO’s finest productions, and the strong cast will surely ignite the spark a little earlier in the opera as the run progresses.

Performances continue on various dates until December 2 — for details click here.

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