To the London Coliseum last night for Penny Woolcock's new production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. It was performed in Brad Cohen's new edition which returns the opera to the state it was in when the composer left it, rather than having Act 3 being the confection it became with tinkering from various hands (including a trio by Benjamin Godard). The problem with the work is that the final act is weak and undoubtedly, if Bizet had lived he would have re-written the work to strengthen it. As it is, I feel that Chandos have the right idea with cutting it down to fit onto 1 CD. You can't help thinking that the piece could be trimmed to 1 act length and paired with some other 1 act piece. It does not help that Bizet puts his best two tunes into Act 1 and nothing he does after this quite matches it.
Usually the piece is performed in productions which make a great deal of the 19th century orientalism, I seem to remember that the previous ENO production was very attractive, with lots of supers in gorgeous costumes. Woolcock and her designers Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) placed the piece in the present day with the villagers living in a waterside shanty-town. But this was a very theatrical kind of realism, the set looked fantastic and was used by Woolcock in all sorts of lovely ways. The production had one visual coup after another.
During the prelude we had what can only be described as a water ballet as divers descended from above in a realistic and magical way. Then during the famous duet in Act 1 (beautifully sung by Quinn Kelsey (Zurga) and Alfie Boe (Nadir)) we got a projection of the goddess, a vision of her face. Later on in that Act we had a stylised but enchanting boat on the sea with divers coming and going whilst Nadir and Leila (Hanan Alattar) sang to each other across the water.
For Act 2 there was a great deal of water effects and whilst Leila thought of Nadir, a back projection of him diving. Video was used a lot, not as a 'look at me' device, but as a very effective way of expanding the horizons of the production.
All this could not quite mask the weakness of the work. And there were moments when the very nature of working in a theatre gave rise to problems. For instance, in Act 1 the shanty town set meant that the chorus had to be rather static and took quite a time to exit. In Act 2 the storm damages the temple in a very hackneyed way.
Newspapers reviews had been a bit mixed on the subject of the singers, particularly Hanan Alatar. In fact, she was announced as suffering from a throat infection. All I can say is that she has an attractive, rather silvery soprano but with slightly to wide a vibrato for my taste. After Act 1, Alfie Boe was also announced as suffering. In fact, he sang much of the opera with ringing tones, though did transpose part of his Act 1 solo down an octave. His voice is developing as an instrument and I would have liked to talk about the way he sang the role and whether or not he approached the French nature of the part. But it would be unfair, and this will have to wait.
Quinn Kelsey is Hawaiian and made a supremely impressive account of the role of Zurga. All three roles are high and Kelsey coped brilliantly with the high lying baritone role and sang with bravura and a beautiful line. I hope to hear much more of him.
Freddie Tong made a strong impression in the small role of Nourabad, looking almost unrecognisable with his long dreadlocks.
Conductor Rory Macdonald gave a strong and passionate account of the score. He's only in his 20's and I do hope that ENO bring him back soon.
Penny Woolcock's fascinating work on this not quite masterpieces meant that we had a wonderfully theatrical evening. I will certainly look forward to its revival.