Penny Woolcock’s visually arresting “The Pearl Fishers” returns to the Coliseum in London in a revival of the 2010 English National Opera co-production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York.
The original production was praised for its stunning effects and staging, and this updated production proved mesmerizing, beginning with a beguiling underwater sequence in which pearl fishers, viewed through a gauzy screen, dive and swim, digitally-generated air bubbles trailing their lithe, fluid bodies (in fact, actors suspended on harnesses). When the curtain goes up, the scene is an exotic Ceylonese shanty town: rough wooden houses crowd higgledy-piggledy around the shoreline, tiny lights prick the early morning sky, telegraph cables sag between the buildings, and a cleverly conceived reflective surface across the entire stage creates the sense of water. The villagers gather around the ghats, dressed in sarongs, dhotis and saris in turmeric and paprika colors, and go about their business — hanging out washing, bathing, cooking at the water’s edge, gossiping. You can almost smell the masala dosas frying.
In later scenes, the houses have gone, leaving the glittering ocean across which a fishing boat glides. The illusion of waves is created through ingenious lighting effects and air-filled pillows, set low on the stage, which billow and swell like the sea. Longer scene changes are made behind the gauzy screen onto which are projected images of waves, including an impressive tsunami between Acts II and III.
Bizet finished “The Pearl Fishers” in 1863, a year after Ingres painted “The Turkish Bath,” when Europe was gripped with a fervor for Orientalism, the term used by 19th-century Western scholars and artists in their study of Eastern cultures and peoples. At the time, the East was regarded as highly exotic — and erotic — and “The Pearl Fishers” resides in this tradition, with its recreation of an imaginary geography inhabited by ignorant, superstitious people who engage in transgressive sexual practices. The narrative is the age-old love triangle, with the added frisson of friendship, loyalty and religious observance.
In fact, Bizet’s opera is rather thin, particularly in comparison to his much-loved, vibrant “Carmen.” The libretto borders on cringe-making, and in this production unfortunately more than highlighted by the fact that it is sung in English and the language doesn’t always sit comfortably with the phrasing and shape of the music, as it surely would if sung in French. Apart from the famous aria (of which more later), there is little to hold the attention, musically, and while others might highlight inventiveness and variety in Bizet’s writing, this reviewer found it wanting, with Act III verging on turgid. Added to this, the characters are wooden and the narrative hardly believable. But of course, “The Pearl Fishers” is saved by the glorious tenor-and-baritone duet “Au Fond du Temple Saint” in Act I (with fragments and reprises in subsequent acts), whose sweepingly romantic melody stays with you throughout, and long after you have left the opera house, a pleasing earworm which will have you humming on your commute to work. On this occasion, what should have been a voluptuous celebration of friendship and unrequited love lacked conviction and depth: this was the first night and one hopes that as the singers (George von Bergen and John Tessier) settle into their roles, the richness of this great aria will come to the fore.
Soprano Sophie Bevan, making her role debut as Leïla, Priestess of Brahma, was a delight. Arriving by boat, veiled and submissive, her palms pressed together in obeisance, she proved a charmingly winsome and flirtatious Leïla, and full credit must go to Bevan for singing the role so arrestingly while recovering from a bug. By comparison, Zurga, sung by von Bergen, was underplayed, given his role (again one hopes his character will develop over forthcoming performances), but Nadir (Tessier) was more convincing, torn between his friendship with Zurga and his passion for Leïla. An attempt, via the setting, to comment on global warming and developing-world poverty seemed overly worthy and self-conscious, and an amused nod to the exigencies of Indian bureaucracy in the Act III scene in Zurga’s “office,” piled high with friable papers and bulging ledgers on rusting filing cabinets, felt unnecessary.
But if the music doesn’t always hold your attention (and all credit to the orchestra, whose muscular playing contributed much-needed vibrancy, together with some fine chorus singing), the visual effects will, along with the costumes: Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, could have stepped straight off a sculptural frieze on a South Indian temple, with his sadhu’s ash-smeared body, draperies, dreadlocks and top knot. Worth seeing if only for the arresting and finely wrought visual effects and staging.