Review: The Pearl Fishers (London Coliseum)
A night of nonsense with some great tunes: ENO grants a second revival to Bizet's opera
Third time round it's improved a lot, but Penny Woolcock's heavy-handed account of Bizet's potboiler still over-eggs the staginess. After an evening spent now fathoms deep, now engulfed in flames, you emerge from The Pearl Fishers desperate to gulp fresh air.
At least it's a proper honest spectacle, and there's nothing wrong with that. As at the first revival, Woolcock has returned to her 2010 production and once again taken the opportunity to introduce fresh ideas. The problem now, alas, is one of taste. Bizet's hokum has been dressed with actual footage of a tsunami's aftermath, a harrowing montage whose only apparent function is to cover a couple of scene changes.
Real life has no place in this silly, stock story (you know the one: soprano priestess loves tenor but has to ward off jealous baritone), so goodness knows why Woolcock chose to set it in the present day. We're on a fictional island in the Indian Ocean, complete with TVs and fridges, but the production trivialises the struggles of an emerging nation and patronises its credulous population.
Yet if you enjoy spectacular stage effects you'll have a ball. Pearl fishers plunge into the deep from their flimsy sampans; divers comb the sea bed for oysters; billowing smoke gets in your eyes at the morally dubious climax in which a pyromaniacal man sacrifices untold livelihoods to help out a mate.
A gripping sense of drama
Musically, this revival is a cut above the last one two years ago. Although his account of the opening act lacks flow, the German conductor Roland Böer has the measure of Bizet's score and the ENO Orchestra plays stylishly for him. And there's been no skimping on casting either, with Jacques Imbrailo (Zurga) and James Cresswell (Nourabad) pretty much ideal.
Claudia Boyle brings a gripping sense of drama and a thrilling soprano radiance to the role of Leïla, the reluctant priestess. She was last seen on ENO's Coliseum stage in The Pirates of Penzance, so it's a tonic now to hear her in some meatier music.
The lover of this former Mabel has a voice that would better suit Frederic, in that same operetta, than the romantic Nadir in The Pearl Fishers. Robert McPherson's light tenor has plenty of air but little weight and is an uneasy partner both to Boyle and, in the celebrated duet "Au fond du temple saint", to the excellent Imbrailo.
Despite fine performances and good tunes (and there are plenty of both, many involving the excellent ENO Chorus), the evening belongs to the technical team. Dick Bird's ambitous sets may crunch and lumber but they are extremely evocative and blend well with the groundbreaking video works of 59 Productions, all abetted by the magic of Jennifer Schriever's lighting.
Notwithstanding its unevenness, there are moments here that make one hope the polymathic Woolcock persists with opera and tackles more substantial works in future. She certainly has the right sort of creative instinct. For example, when Zurga's damaged office block succumbs to the flood, water breaks through cracks in the walls as a telling symbol of the tortured man's own fracturing mind. The pearl fissures, you might say.
The Pearl Fishers runs in repertory at the London Coliseum until 2 December.