Penny Woolcock’s new production of The Pearl Fishers opens with a stunning coup de théâtre. As the music of the prelude starts the curtain rises to reveal a beautiful projected image of light filtering through water. Through this shifting play of light we see an aerial ballet of three pearl fishers diving and surfacing with their trophies.
The scene which, in less competent technical hands, could have been laughable is perfectly judged and utterly captivating. Perhaps inevitably the rest of the production cannot live up to the first images but I hardly exaggerate when I state that the opening almost justifies the ticket price on its own.
The first full stage scene promises much with a spectacular setting and some excellently detailed chorus work. The set, representing a fairly contemporaneous shanty town perched precariously at the sea’s edge, is complex and somewhat limits the chorus movement. Despite this there are some beautifully observed vignettes such as the young men attempting to place their TV aerial in the optimum position and the village barber at his work. The genuine chill of horror when this community turn on Leïla and Nadir and prepare to immolate them is all the more effective coming after the normality of the opening scenes.
Set against this one has to note some less than felicitous personregie when dealing with the principals all of whom could have benefited from more detailed direction. Far too often they were left to fall back on stock gestures and the relationships, especially the fascinatingly conflicted Nadir-Zurga friendship, are not fleshed out enough to make them believable.
The production was very much sold on Alfie Boe. He had the misfortune early in his career to be tarred with the Classic FM brush which was unfair to his considerable talents. He has a handsome, slightly tousled, stage presence, is a good actor and his acrobatic scaling of the temple fence in Act 2 bore witness to time well spent at the gym. His voice is now a powerful instrument with a ringing top but unfortunately he seemed loath to sing quietly. "Je crois entendre encore" requires a honeyed, hushed line and, on this occasion, Boe failed to provide it. That said he sang well throughout the rest of the evening.
Hanan Alattar as Leïla started the evening in rather brittle form although she improved significantly in Act 2. Her voice is splendid at the very top of its range but the mid top is much less secure at this stage. Her Act 2 aria, although well sung, was compromised by some disastrous business with her veil. Alattar was clearly uncomfortable with the moves which should be discarded or significantly revised as a matter of urgency.
Quinn Kelsey sang Zurga with a voluminous baritone and some rafter-ringing top notes. However he is as yet a somewhat basic actor and the character only really came alive in his big scena in Act 3. But he is clearly a talent to watch and I look forward to seeing him again soon.
The very talented conductor Rory Macdonald made the best possible case for this Bizet’s youthful work and elicited beautiful playing from the ENO orchestra with some excellent solo lines throughout the evening. This was a long overdue revival of the piece and, despite my caveats, made for a highly enjoyable evening.
- Sebastian Petit