Friday, 27 June 2014

Penny Wilcock's The Pearl Fishers at the ENO: Brilliant and seductive music in an Moonlit Aquarium ***



Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers was not a success when it first premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863. Until now it hasn't received the same astounding reputation as his later and most popular opera, ‘Carmen.’ Penny Woolcock’s current production at the ENO appears to have many ambitious stage ideas as presented by David Bird: floating silk satin sheets, cleverly coordinated actors diving into a bubbly abyss with Jen Schriever’s ocean coloured video projections yet, some of the most basic rules for aweing an audience were somehow misplaced.

The musical grandiose of the melodic and romantic opera, The Peal Fishers is unmistakably one of the most sublime of its kind, not only because it was originally written in the language of love – French – but due to the sweet yearning from the famous duet between baritone and tenor in "Au fond du temple saint." 


The libretto is set in the exotic land of Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka, where two pearl fishers and fellow comrades Zurga (George von Berger) and Nadir (John Tessier) honour their friendship by making a pact to stay loyal, however this is tested 
by the unattainable Goddess Laïla (Sophie Bevan) who the people depend on to calm the seas and protect them from thunderous storms. 

The twist in this romantic tale however is through Nadir and Laïla’s clandestine relationship, which once found out, are condemned to death by the insanely jealous Zurga. By Act 3, Woolcuck’s production gets evil; von Berger portrays an ill-tempered and violent Zurga in an unforgiving and vulgarly mannered shantytown.

Bevan, as the heroine, manages to remind us of the romantic proponent Bizet was through the soft lullaby aria, “Me voila seule” and boasts her ability to prolong high notes, more times than not. 

Tessier and von Berger give their best performance of the duet, and even if it wasn’t vocally consistence throughout, there were moments of heartfelt poignancy that assured an audience that their money was well spent. 

Tessier serenade voice was clear yet, unfortunately for von Berger, his voice was only redeemable towards Act 3 as it was drowned out by Jean-Luc Tingaud’s direction of a fiery orchestra.

As mentioned, Bizet’s musical score is first class and, one may argue, the only success of the opera which makes it harder to address any potential flaws with the orchestra but Tingaud goes full steam at the finale of Act 2 were the secret lovers are discovered. 

All singers and chorus sang hard and loud with their arms raised to the sky, which was maximised by the roaring of an oncoming storm, the triumphant beats of drums and bold brass instruments.

However, why were the cast static? Why did the appear gormless?  When it came to scene changes, a silent audience was left with rotating digital footage of water, which may be unkind to anyone prone to seasickness. For as long as four minutes, the waiting was worsened by the awkward sounds of backstage; the banging and thumping of props and muffled conversations between what sounded like beer bellied construction workers. 

Even the woody set design of the shantytown was creaky which overshadowed the harmony and tranquillity of Bizet’s songs. There are some notable details such as the moonlit aquarium scenery, which added to the soothing ambiance yet, brilliant and seductive music aside, there were almost too many concerns regarding the stage itself.

The Pearl Fishers shows at the ENO until the 5th July