The Pearl Fishers, ENO

I spent much of my fifteenth year rehearsing and performing Bizet’s Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall, so I was very ashamed when I realised my ignorance of this French composer’s other famous opera, The Pearl Fishers. Enlisting the help of my experienced operatic grandmother we went along to the ENO’s revival of this classical masterpiece.

A co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, this 2010 revival, directed by Penny Woolcock, is staged this season with a new, young and talented cast. Set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), there is immediately a sense of the exotic, the rippling overture transporting the audience to a faraway scene. A semi-opaque screen shows elusive divers who dip and drift in the air magically, a sensational and seamless display of artistic acrobatics. Meanwhile gentle music floats from the orchestra pit, conducted by the very able and passionate conductor, Jean-Luc Tingaud.

The narrative is centred on the friendship of two men, Zurga (village headman) and Nadir (a pearl diver) who were previously torn apart after both falling for the same girl, Leila (Priestess of Brahma). Forgetting their feud and abandoning the girl, they reunite and remember moments from the past, singing the famous operatic friendship duet, “Au fond du temple saint” (The Pearl Fishers Duet). When Leila unexpectedly arrives, disguised as an unknown priestess. Nadir recognises his lover’s voice and they reunite late at night; found together, they are sentenced to death by Zurga who is devastated by the betrayal. A revelation from the past saves the lovers lives but risks Zurga’s future.

We were notified at the start of the show that the leading lady, Sophie Bevan had been struck down with a sickness bug, which the ENO casting director kindly explained in graphic detail! Bevan bravely came on and sung with a shrill and bright tone, delicately negotiating the intricate runs. John Tessier is a young and spritely tenor with a light, bright and clear voice, though we were less impressed with George von Bergen as Zurga, whose wobbling bass could not cut through the swelling orchestra, his acting however was the most believable of the group.

The orientalism is often confused, costumes vary from Leila’s belly dancing outfit to Nadir’s Aussie surf shorts look! The set however is wonderfully evocative, a rickety Sri Lankan slum, crowded with chorus members draped in rags. Set Designer Dick Bird also creates a memorable Library backdrop for the final act. Despite the lack of water on stage, the aquatic environment is represented with varying effects and materials, all of which I thought were very successful and stunning to watch.

However just as we arrive at the happy ending, the couple reunited and running off into the sunset, the audience are confronted with a horrific vision of dying children, carried in after the village fire, an unnecessarily bleak finale in my opinion.

Continues until 5 July, book here.

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