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The Pearl Fishers, sung in English

English National Opera, Coliseum
06/01/2010 -  & June 4*, 10, 12, 19, 22, 26, 29, July 1, 4, 8
Georges Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de perles

Alfie Boe (Nadir), Hanan Alattar (Leila), Quinn Kelsey (Roland Wood, after June 29), (Zurga), Freddie Tong, (Nourabad)
Chorus and orchestra of The English National Opera, Rory Macdonald (conductor), Penny Woolcock (director), Dick Bird (set designer), Kevin Pollard (costume designer)

Hanan Alattar (© C. Ashmore)

We had not one but two martyrdom announcements tonight. First we were told Hanan Alattar would nobly go on with a throat infection then out came ENO's John Harvey again in the second half to announce that Alfie Boe felt left out. Can't we stop this opera only habit? Either you go on and sing or you don't. We'll understand. As usual, they sang fine.

Still, what a joy to see this in the repertory! ENO's last new production of this premièred when I was 8, so this has ended up my first staged experience of a masterpiece known only from CDs. Like so many exotically set French operas, The Pearl Fishers has fallen out of fashion; blame it what you will; singing traditions, the end of colonialism or just the plain conservatism of modern opera goers. Much as I, and many others, will proclaim it an equal masterpiece to Carmen, I doubt many visitors to the O2's epic staging of Bizet's hit will be suitably curious to hear the earlier work at the Coliseum. True, the libretto is pretty trite. It is a classic love triangle of two men in thrall to the same temptress, testing their friendship and the rebukes of an ancient religion reliant on virgins. Promising as that sounds, there isn't really a baddie, merely an angry friend and a rather polite siren. Only the music summons up the necessary passion and drama, with Eugene Cormon and Michel Carré's text often playing catch up.

Penny Woolcock inspires confidence in the programme notes with some real insights into this Eastern tale and showing an understandable love for Bizet's extraordinary music. She almost pulls it off too. There's some real razzmatazz video projection accompanying the prelude; three pearl divers swimming in an underwater effect that fools us until we see the curtain rising on Dick Bird's shanty town set. An oasis of exotic poverty in modern times, only motor boats and the occasional T-shirt to tell us that we are not in the past. There's a good gag with some dopey looking backpackers wandering through the remote, presumably, Bangladeshi village, oozing condescension and bleach blonde gawkiness, and the crowd scenes have real direction and unity. I could have done without the projected images of Nadir during Leila's musings.

It suddenly looked like the budget ran out when Zurga's tent collapsed into view but Woolcock proves she's not just a good chorus director and actually gets individuals to act well against each other. Throughout, we are reminded of the potential storms, both literal and emotional. The constant rocking of the seas and the impenetrable religious fervour of the whole village, helping to clarify this rather overcooked tale.

Rory MacDonald's conducting was brilliant; Shape, colour and energy were all present in a score that needs this sort of flair. The version used was Brad Cohen's Urtext score, as close as we can get to the lost original score, although a similar attempt was made on EMI's 1978 recording. The chorus are given some of Bizet's best writing and we were rewarded with some of the best, most galvanized singing I have heard from ENO's chorus.

Hanan Alattar rose above her throat infection, singing with imagination and feeling. Many wouldn't take to her unfashionable vibrato, but she reminded one of French sopranos of the past, standing out from the smooth blandness of a lot of today's sopranos. There was genuine, playful eroticism when Nadir finally undresses her and her character, pretty much veiled up until then, was allowed to flourish.

Also allowing for illness, Alfie Boe sang well. It's a lovely, bright tenor that rises above the orchestra well. He didn't float the voice as well as some in Nadir's aria (one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces in all opera) and he's hardly a gripping actor, but he worked hard to bring passion to a character that is often too nice. In fact it all comes as a shock when, finally, he jumps over the security fence to declare his passion for Leila. On what the dependable Zurga and flaky Nadir saw in each other, the libretto is rather inadequate.

Quinn Kelsey's Zurga was sung with a beautifully rich, nutty tone but his top got the better of him on a couple of occasions. His character is really a cipher for the first hour but the libretto then has a seizure and makes him a desperate and violent man, torn between lust and religion, friendship and betrayal. Kelsey became suitably imposing and tortured, finally diverting the angry villagers with a fire and helping the women he loves and his friend escape. He gives an impassioned portrait of a broken man. Or at least he would have Woolcock left it there.

Try as she might, this isn't Peter Grimes and the final tableau, of the hoodwinked villagers cradling their burnt children was crass, insensitive, meaningless soul-searching. Bizet doesn't give enough music for that to register and I am sure he wasn't expecting his exotic tale of forbidden love to have to shuffle off with that sort of baggage. At least she puts some pearl fishing in.

I love the piece as much as Woolcock clearly does and I think she is on to something, inherent in the piece, with regards to fundamentalism but as a parable of environmental revenge...? These grand ideas might have worked for, Butterfly or indeed, Lakmé, another French tale of oriental love, where the roles of intrusion and foreign interference would support Woolcock and Bird's visions of urban concrete and security fencing clashing with icons of ancient religions. The Pearl Fisher's libretto really cannot take much pressure. More often it caves in to the brilliance of the music.

This colourful, mellow textured score suits the Coliseum's soft focus acoustic, and MacDonald, against such odds achieved real sharpness from the pit. Deliberately ignoring the surtitles, I made sense of most of what was being sung. Kelsey had especially good diction. Tasteless ending aside, ENO has made a case for a work that is screaming to show you more than just its duet.

Barnaby Rayfield



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