Georges Bizet was just 25 when The Pearl Fishers premièred in Paris in 1863. Hyper-idealised orientalism had been a popular strain in European arts for decades (think Delacroix with his fleshy harems and fierce Moors, FitzGerald’s whimsical Rubaiyat, Napoleon by the Sphinx…), and theatre was thronging with cardboard cut-out love triangles and melodrama. In the circumstances it might be unfair to blame the young composer for turning out what is, by any standard, one of opera’s staler staples. Perhaps it can best be seen as an homage to cliché. Whatever its faults it remains a crowd-pleasing favourite with audiences, thanks largely to one strong duet and the occasional producer brave enough to lock the loin cloths away.
Crowd-pleasing was evidently on director Penny Woolcock’s mind when she staged The Pearl Fishers with the ENO in 2010, a production now revived at the Coliseum as an ENO-Met co-production. Woolcock’s challenge, as with other directors of the piece, is to find a way to turn a staid story into something truly special. At the outset this does seem possible. While the prelude whisks us away to Sri Lanka the stage is transformed into a shimmering azure ocean, complete with lithe pearl fishers swimming gracefully to collect their prizes. The stagecraft is little short of mesmerising, and as the scene changes to a modern seaside slum of helter-skelter corrugated roofs, bare scaffolding and smoking braziers it seems we’re in for a treat. Even Leïla’s rather ignominious arrival on a motorised tin dinghy seems magical, a clever juxtaposition between the character’s strained religious mystique and her inability to influence events.
Woolcock’s interpretation of the story moves a little beyond the love triangle, drawing attention to the supremacy of temporal power over religion, and the iniquity of faith-based misogyny. Unfortunately the staging and interpretation can’t quite remedy the production’s musical shortfalls. Bizet’s occasionally staid composition never recovers from the heights of the celebrated duet between Nadir and Zurga, although conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud clearly does his best to fire it up. In spite of his best efforts – including excellent dramatic use of silence – the limping score isn’t helped by peculiar artistic decisions around the production’s three-act structure. As we have only one interval the audience is compelled to sit in a darkened house during the long set change between Acts II and III (and a later scene change), with Woolcock’s rolling underwater tableau projected rather ominously on the curtain. This isn’t the way to keep the blood pumping while we dream wistfully of Carmen.
It’s certainly possible to find passion in Bizet’s youthful score, but at times it seems no-one informed the performers. Sadly John Tessier’s Nadir lacks the fervor of a man confronted with the heights of love, peril and betrayal, and his stage chemistry with George von Bergen as Zurga never quite sizzles. Both actors are in fine voice – Tessier’s youthful tenor in particular soars magnificently – but the overall feeling is one of a recital, not of a full-fledged production.
Leïla, however, is given a mighty treatment by Sophie Bevan. Having been stricken with a stomach bug on the day of the performance Bevan nonetheless dominated the stage with a beautiful voice full of passion, naïveté and regret. Mercifully, this does help chivvy things beyond the tenor-baritone duet’s customary stranglehold on the story’s lyrical drama, and Leïla’s heartfelt aria before her fateful reunion with Nadir marks the production’s musical high point. As the curtain falls on a company tottering somewhat unenthusiastically towards their burning homes, the audience might be left wondering if the rest was really worthwhile.