This is the third time I’ve seen Penny Woolcock’s visually stunning production of The Pearl Fishers at the London Coliseum, and I still haven’t got tired of it. English National Opera has brought its original showing of Bizet’s less successful opera (first premiered in Théâtre Lyrique, 1863), compared to his passion-raged opera, Carmen, back for the London audience, which has some small amends that make for a less messy outing.
I first saw the ENO production in 2014, with singers George von Berger, John Tessier and Sophie Bevan who sung with heartfelt tendency and poignancy, yet I was concerned about the loud, distracting noises which took place behind the main stage. Then it was at the beginning of the year that I caught up with Metropolitan Opera’s HD Live screening with superb singers; Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien: obviously an incomparable experience. For one, the Met have a larger budget; commissioning 59 Productions to coordinate visual projections, and implementing airplane machinery for acrobats to emulate diving pearl fishers, searching for pearls in the ocean. Secondly, there’s the camera direction that brought audiences closer to the expressions and feelings of the lead singers’ through their facial expressions, making the viewing experience far more sophisticated and intimate.
Nonetheless, Woolcock’s production is unique, and for any opera newbie, it is guaranteed to impress . Yet there are some elements of the opera that may stray some audiences away, including its storyline of two best friends fighting over the same virginal priestess who vows to protect a village but falls in love with a man, when she isn’t supposed to, anyway.
Maestro Roland Böer gives an enticing performance of the sensitive overture with the consistently brilliant ENO Orchestra, which sets the mood of tranquil Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) that soon diminishes through betrayal and mistrust. The famous aria Au fond du temple saint, sung by Jacques Imbrailo and Robert McPherson, as Zurga and Nadir, is enjoyable to listen to. They both appear to be in their element, both understanding the music as baritone and tenor, and there’s that sense of hope that nothing can come between their friendship.
Dickie Bird’s gorgeous shimmer of the Indian Ocean still stands as one of the best stage settings I’ve ever seen at the London Coliseum. This time round, the 2016 production brought together a collage of footage from recent tsunamis that had destroyed villages and homes. Focusing on countries that suffer from droughts, flooding and tsunami (Bangladesh being a major example as supplied in the programme notes), Woolcock aims to remind her audience that although nature has its own disasters the people who endure and have to live with them are still human; they still fall in love, they still undergo heartbreak, and still have friendships that break down.
Bizet’s music cannot be questioned here. The ENO Orchestra are, hands-down, successful in drawing on the finer details of Bizet’s account. This includes the courageous ENO Chorus who were vocally heroic at the end of act 1; their climactic singing sent shivers down my spine and teleported me into the powerful waters that destroy the village after Leïla, the priestess, and Nadir are caught intimately together: a violation of Zurga’s village laws.
Claudia Boyle gave a strong appearance as the easily swayed priestess, yet vocally she could have been more passionate and stronger, I felt. Her efforts are noted nevertheless. James Creswell, a resident singer at the London Coliseum for the past couple of years, warrants credit for his solid and stoic performance as the high priest, even if it is a small part.
Jacques Imbrailo is a confident Zurga and matched the title role as village leader. His singing was neat, and his character’s transgressions, which he shows in act 2, is equally convincing. There is particularly something likable about Robert Mcpherson’s singing as lovestruck Nadir. Although his colouring was slightly higher than I am used to, compared to other recordings and performances I’ve heard, I thought that it worked for Nadir’s naivety and besotted manner, in loving Leila and the desire to be privately alone with her.
There is a ‘but’ however: here’s the rub. As much as I enjoyed this production, there was no fire burning for me in this production. Yes, at the end, Zurga burns the village and there is literal fire on stage, but there was no emotional spark that pulled me to love the opera. The friendship duet seemed rather loose, and there also appeared to be no visible chemistry between Boyle and McPherson’s characters. I just needed that extra nudge. Simply enjoying something is clearly not enough.