Monday 23 June 2014

A shining pearl: Pearl Fishers at the ENO

Bizet: The Pearl Fishers - (c) ENO / Mike Hoban
(c) ENO / Mike Hoban
Bizet The Pearl Fishers; Sophie Bevan, John Tessier, George von Bergen, Barnaby Rea, conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud, director Penny Woolcock; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 16 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Strong revival of Penny Woolcock's breathtaking production
After 'Cosi fan tutte' I thought that the English National Opera would be hard pushed to produce a more spectacular show – but I have to admit that they did it! The ENO's current production of 'The Pearl Fishers' is stunning – it literally took my breath away.

Award winning film and TV director Penny Woolcock's vision was beautifully realised by the creative teams: sets (Dick Bird), lighting (Jen Schriever), and video (Leo Warner for 59 Productions Ltd), who all combined to produce something amazing. The costumes by Kevin Pollard enhanced the performances – including that people's costumes got steadily more worn and damaged by their escapades as the story unfolded, and choreographer Andrew Dawson engineered some very realistic swimming and diving.

Bizet: The Pearl Fishers - (c) ENO / Mike Hoban
(c) ENO / Mike Hoban
The opening diving scenes, and later when the fishers were diving on stage, were beautiful, and the tsunami which enveloped the village very powerful. Something to do with lighting, projections of images and films, plus clever use of fabric and curtains worked collectively in a way that was utterly believable.

'Les pêcheurs de perles' was composed by Georges Bizet (1838-1875) when he was just 24, using a libretto written by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. Premiered in 1863 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, like much of his work, it was largely ignored during his lifetime - Bizet died at the age of 36 shortly after completing 'Carmen'.

Centred in a fishing village 'The Pearl Fishers' is a tale about lost and found love, and the jealously this generates in a superstitious community. The four stars of this version of the opera, Leïla sung by Sophie Bevan (whose performance belied the fact that she was ill), Nadir by John Tessier, Zurga performed by George von Bergen, and Nourabad by Barnaby Rea (unrecognisable in his priest's costume), along with the chorus, actors, and children brought this little traditional village in (what was) Ceylon alive.

Bizet's music was designed like a modern film score - building tension to bring our attention to what else might be going on, and using snippets of themes to differentiate between characters and places. Right from the 'Pirate's of the Caribbean' style music when the curtain rises on the village, you know that this story is going to be an adventure.

The famous duet 'Au fond du temple saint' (In the depths of the temple) where the two rivalis in love compare notes about the day they first saw Leïla was tenderly sung by Tessier and von Bergen. The 'goddess' theme recurred throughout the rest of the opera, even telling the audience that the mysterious veiled priestess is the beauty (Leïla) that the two men saw the year before in the temple.

Bizet: The Pearl Fishers - (c) ENO / Mike Hoban
Bizet: The Pearl Fishers - (c) ENO / Mike Hoban
Leïla's ornamentation and flights of cadenza were beautifully sung by Bevan, and her gentle love scenes with Nadir were touching. Hers is the only part with such detailed ornamentation and I was left wondering if this was because Bizet liked an ornamented soprano line, or the soprano it was written for demanded an ornamented part, or whether it was to indicate that she was singing, unlike the men who were talking.

Rea as Nourabad was quite imposing – generating a careless and intolerant instigator of the fall of the priestess. He doesn't have lots to sing, but what he did, he did with intensity and (for the second half) menace.

The ENO orchestra conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud played magnificently. Tingaud specialises in 19th century repertoire, although his conducting credentials include music across the board.

Over the years the music for 'The Pearl Fishers' has been expanded and changed to accommodate different performers and audiences, and, because the original scores have been lost, it is difficult to know what Bizet would have approved of, or even originally planned. The score used in this performance was recreated by Brad Cohen from a short score in Bizet's own handwriting that has some notation as to proposed orchestration. Here we find a composer who has grown up from the short operas composed as a student (for example Le doctor Miracle) but has not yet reached the depths of dark passionate opera we find with Carmen.

'The Pearl Fishers' runs throughout June and July at the ENO. It is definitely one to see.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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