Another revival for ENO and one that yet again aims to catapult its audience’s senses into oblivion. But where many of the company’s previous efforts have been mind-blowing, this – Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers – falls short as the aesthetics feel both half-hearted and half-finished.
Director Penny Woolcock has demonstrated her prowess in many media as a writer/director and this isn’t her first time recreating the opera, having done so in 2010 to mixed reviews. The Pearl Fishers is also perhaps one of Bizet’s more obscure works, with his 1875 Carmen undoubtedly still being his most widely recognised. So why revive a piece that has always been just moderately successful?
With the promise of a remarkable opening sequence of divers fishing for pearls, I couldn’t help but immediately feel both frustrated and disappointed. Whilst the illusion of the sea on stage is a very clever one, and Andrew Dawson’s beautiful choreography makes it look oh-so-realistic, the visible stage mechanics didn’t leave me feeling remotely awe-struck. The possibilities here just seem limitless. A palette made up of a frenzy of blues and yellows, even the promise of a setting sun cast into the water could have made the scene into something remarkable – instead it is unfortunately forgettable. Whilst continuing in a similar vein and lacking variety and imagination, Dick Bird’s set design does capture Woolcock’s vision of the Far East and uses the stage well for most of The Pearl Fishers. There are some tremendous moments, specifically in Act One as a cloak of darkness surrounds what is to become Leila and Nadir’s meeting spot, transforming into the sea. It is in turn manipulated by cast members as they dive into it, disappearing below the stage. The closing moments of Act Two are also overwhelmingly good, as a tsunami rises above the theatrics and consumes all in its path. Unfortunately though, the subsequent set change is a little bit longer than is comfortable.
Bizet’s score and the cast are undoubtedly the saviours of this piece. Sophie Bevan’s Leila is extraordinary, and profoundly more so considering she was suffering from an illness and almost couldn’t be on stage. The soprano is just achingly beautiful to listen to and the range of tones she delivers are interesting and other-worldly. George Von Bergen’s Zurga and John Tessier’s Nadir are both strong, but the former’s deep baritone is not quite as smooth or easy to listen to as Tessier’s clear tenor. Chemistry generally is hard to believe, but I think that is perhaps down to a weak libretto.
Story isn’t exactly emphasised here, but an enchanting score makes up for it. Leila’s entrance into the piece is touching and Nadir’s duet with Zurga is a nice moment, aided much by conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud and the orchestra – excellent as always.
I’m a massive fan of ENO and always look forward to seeing the keen, creative eye that is usually cast upon each of their productions. The Pearl Fishers, whilst having a talented cast and beautiful score, did disappoint me in the area that the company always excels in.
The Pearl Fishers is playing at the London Coliseum until 5 July. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website.