THOROUGHLY MODERN MISS: Pearl Fishers, ENO

The Pearl Fishers was not well-received when first debuted in 1863, but Bizet’s much-critiqued three-act libretto has been transformed by director Penny Woolcock and conductor Roland Boer in this co-production from the ENO and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Pearl Fishers ENO

Set in an underdeveloped Far East village where the only source of income to the inhabitants is the work of the brave pearl fishers, the story follows the love triangle of Zuria, Nadir and the object of their life-shattering obsession, Leila.

The first thing to notice in this production is the intricacy and realism of the set design. Rickety shacks, a backdrop of the ocean, moving fishing boats: this dynamic set is as intriguing as it is beautiful, and keeps the audience captivated throughout. The highlight of the visuals was, however, the underwater world created in the third act. This stunning display evokes the immense sense of disaster that ripples throughout the fictional town, and echoes the disturbed thoughts of our main characters.

The score is dynamic and uplifting: the chorus is almost a wall of sound, providing bursts of energy throughout, and uniting the story’s themes- desire, rejection, loss- through the emotion of these secondary characters. A stark comparison to this is the unique duet moments that pepper the score with delicate harmony. The famous Pearl Fishers duet- demonstrating the doomed loyalty of Zuria and Nadir’s friendship- does not disappoint in this case, but Leila and Nadir’s love-struck moments are just as heart-felt and touching.

This stunning representation is at the ENO until the 2nd December- if you want to be captivated by a strikingly boisterous yet graceful score and a stunning stage design, I would highly recommend The Pearl Fishers.

Find out more & book tickets here.

Written by Jade Phipps.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MISSY: Carmen, ENO, Coliseum

If you have been at any London tube station in recent weeks, you will most likely have seen an eye-catching advert of a blonde beauty in a sparkling pink dress on the hood of a car. No, this was not announcing a new women’s fragrance or hair colour. It is in fact the poster for the English National Opera’s latest production of Carmen. The blonde poster girl is Justyna Gringyte, who plays the title role and her eye-catching photo is an introduction to this unusual, very successful take on Bizet’s classic.

It would be difficult to find a single member of the packed opening night audience who did not know the rousing overture that starts Carmen and so there was an air of familiarity as the orchestra played the famous music and the audience waited for the Coliseum curtains to rise. This familiarity was abruptly stopped as the curtains rose to reveal a bare, dusty set decorated by only a flagpole, a telephone box and a row of barely visible, eerily placed soldiers. Calixto Bieto, opera director extraordinaire, hailed as the ‘Quentin Tarantino of the opera world’, has a clear vision with this production. Premiered in 2012, Bieto’s Carmen steers clear from Spanish stereotypes of castanets and flamenco dresses (although flamenco dresses do make a comic appearance in a plan to swindle some customs officers) and instead focuses on the seductive yet seedy undertones to the libretto. Only a Spanish flag, and the famous Osborne Bull silhouette gives the production a geographic placement.

As is the case with most famous operatic productions, traditional interpretations of the libretto don’t quite cut it anymore. Though Bizet’s Carmen shocked the audience when it was first premiered, today’s audience has become immune to that same kind of scandal. This production has kept up with the times in terms of creating that same kind of shock by including full (although not always fully explained) nudity as well as some darker undertones of child grooming and abuse. Because of these, sadly, very contemporary discomforts of modern society, the audience was suitably unsettled as the libretto is meant to make one feel.

The chorus shone both as excitable fans of the bullfight and as surly, perverted guards. The acting in this production was the best I’ve seen with the ENO and the singing was very commendable indeed. Justina Grigynte, the blonde bombshell Carmen thrived in her role as a flirtatious and confused woman caught between multiple men and although there were some slight diction difficulties which made the audience somewhat dependent on the surtitles, the tone and musicality of her singing matched her acting skills. Eric Cutler performed stunningly as a complex Don José who sang beautifully with my personal favourite, Eleanor Dennis as Micaëla.

This is a breath of fresh, yet seedy, air into a total opera classic. The excellent singing and exhilarating story telling is reason enough to go, but, as an added bonus, you also get to see how they fit six (yes, six) cars onto the Coliseum stage at the beginning of the third act. This is not a production to miss – catch it either at the Coliseum or streamed live at a cinema near you.

Carmen continues until Friday 3 July, book here.

Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy, Angelica Bomford.

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.