If one listened only to Classic FM, one could be forgiven for assuming that disproportionately famed bromance duet “Au fond du temple saint” is the only decent music in The Pearl Fishers – yet Bizet’s early trip into exoticism is not the musical dud one might expect. There are three good, meaty principal parts (albeit with hazy dramatic motivations), a nice ranty bass priest role and some really fine chorus music. So why doesn’t it hold a place in the popular canon akin to Bizet’s only acknowledged masterpiece? Chief culprit must be Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré’s cut and paste libretto which fails to give any motivational depth to the three main characters and neglects to define the chorus as anything other than colourful set dressing, at least until they explode in rage at the climax to Act II. Martin Fitzpatrick’s tactful translation at ENO, working from such thin source material, failed to raise it above its cardboard origins.

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I reviewed this production when it was new in 2010, when the big selling point was the star turn of a certain Alfie Boe. Unfortunately, Mr Boe turned out to be singularly ill equipped to the breathy subtleties of the part of Nadir and contented himself with singing at an unremitting forte all evening. Admittedly, he was not helped by his miscast soprano partner but the big news actually turned out to be the hugely promising debut of Quinn Kelsey as Zurga. At the time the breathtaking visuals of the opening underwater ballet set a high bar which the remainder of the production failed to live up to. The disproportionate money spent on the opening set seemed to have left little to spend on the remaining locations. However now, no doubt aided by an injection of cash from co-producer the Metropolitan Opera, the design team have rethought much of the scenic elements and added handsome new sets for the later scenes. There is a new underwater sequence in Act II, presumably showing Nadir swimming to Leila’s inaccessible temple. While before the period was somewhat indeterminate, the production is now firmly rooted in the present day with Zurga’s confrontation with Leila now set in a massive warehouse apparently stocked with illegal substances (or was that just my imagination?!).

The spectacular projections have also been expanded and now form bridges between the scenes. That said, at least on opening night, the scene changes took far too long and the fact that the audience was forced to sit in darkness watching endless wave and water projections unfortunately only drew attention to this fact. The director, Penny Woolcock, should seriously re-think the climax to Act II which, after some spectacular singing, projections and lighting is scuppered by the lack of a clean sound break (the wave soundtrack continued after the music cut off). Also, the silk operators were clearly having far too much fun simulating the stormy sea – I fully expected Godzilla to emerge from the waves at any moment. And why do so many directors now seem embarrassed to use the house tabs to close acts? The end of Act III tails off despite the fine musical culmination because the tabs are not flown on the final chords and a blackout is unachievable due to the real flames onstage.

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Woolcock also seems to have neglected to draw much acting from those principals who needed her guidance. Far too often they are left to fall back on stock operatic, arms-akimbo gestures. This is all the more a pity, as ENO have fielded a far more homogenous and musically convincing cast than on the production’s first outing. The chorus work is as admirably detailed as before but one can always rely on the ENO chorus to bring a community to life onstage. However, neither the work nor the set make their entrances anything other than clumsily. Far too often one is aware of the necessity of getting the population on and offstage within a limited musical timeframe.

Musically ENO seemed on much more solid ground. Jean-Luc Tingaud, making his ENO debut had exactly the right approach to the work and made the best possible case for it. The orchestra are having a particularly strong season and this continued their fine level of work. Tingaud carefully trod the line between some extremely sensitive accompaniment of the delicate arias and duets and whipping up a veritable storm at the climaxes. A pity his efforts were so often undermined by directorial decisions. Martin Fitzpatrick’s chorus also had a very good evening and blew the roof off in thrilling style for the Act II finale.

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An announcement was made for Sophie Bevan before curtain up, as she had been affected by a severe virus that morning. However, Bevan is nothing if not a trouper and there was little to indicate her sickness in either her beautiful singing or her immaculately detailed acting. After her unbeatable Sophie in the recent CBSO Rosenkavalier, Bevan is quickly becoming my favourite light lyric soprano. Leila is a big sing for her voice but there was very little hint of either strain or the effects of the illness and her voice rang out powerfully in the Act II finale and in the crucial scene with Zurga (dramatically the most interesting scene in the opera). Only occasionally the lower reaches eluded her, especially on descent. It also does no harm that she appears tiny, vulnerable and beautiful onstage. I hope to return to see her Leila later in the run – a lovely performance.

Of the three principals, only Bevan seemed really confident as an actor. I heard very good reports of John Tessier in the recent revival of L’elisir d’amore and his sweet-toned lyric tenor proved almost ideal for Nadir. Indeed, I hope to hear him sing the role in French soon, as the clunky English did him few favours. The famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” and the ravishing aria were both beautifully brought off. Tessier’s voice is perfectly weighted for the part, allowing him to caress the soft-spun lines (some gorgeous head-voice in the aria) but also ring out above the chorus when necessary. He is, on last night’s evidence, as yet a sincere but not striking actor. However, I doubt even a Day Lewis or Sher could do much with Nadir’s hopelessly underdrawn character.

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Zurga is a more interesting character but George von Bergen, at least in the early scenes, seemed to be feeling his way towards the character, despite a dominating and handsome stage presence. Too often he was left hanging by the director and he has yet to acquire that elusive stage stillness. Fortunately he was on much more confident form when his rage broke out and he and Bevan made the scary brutality of their final confrontation wholly convincing. Von Bergen’s voice is highly promising but there remain some bumps to be ironed out, especially when he needs to sing quietly. Also there is a sense that he is stretching for the high extremes of the role. However, he came into his own in the aria “O Nadir” and the angry duet with Leila making that scene one of the highlights of the night.

Barnaby Rea was a suitably trenchant Nourabad and he made much of little when portraying an almost wholly unsympathetically drawn character. A very worthwhile revival of a neglected work made special by Tingaud, the orchestra, chorus and Sophie Bevan in particular. I hope Woolcock reconsiders some of the production aspects, most particularly the Act climaxes, before the show moves to New York

Sebastian Petit

4 stars

(Photos by Catherine Ashmore, via ENO website)

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