The Pearl Fishers review – ENO's large-scale, but hit-and-miss production London Coliseum
A young cast struggle to bring Bizet's cardboard characters to life
English National Opera is currently the home of flawed French opera. In tandem with Terry Gilliam's reanimation of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, here is Penny Woolcock's 2010 version of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers – a work with a smash-hit tenor-baritone duet but with a text so bad the librettists felt the need to apologise. Perhaps that mollified Bizet, but it's too little too late for all the directors since who have struggled with its clunky Orientalism, and for all the singers who have tried to bring these cardboard characters to life.
ENO's youthful cast doesn't quite succeed, but it has a good try. That's especially true of Sophie Bevan, who went on as the priestess Leila despite reportedly suffering from a stomach bug. In the later acts at least, she left us wondering how much more radiant her heartfelt singing could get even if she were on top form.
As her lover Nadir, John Tessier fields a light, clear tenor that goes higher and higher, but the role ideally needs a bigger vocal personality. You could say the same for his buddy/arch-enemy Zurga: George von Bergen gives a convincing performance in an unconvincing role, but his sturdy baritone is still often overwhelmed by Bizet's burgeoning orchestra. The debuting conductor, Jean-Luc Tinguad, keeps supple control, but at times the instruments should speak as expressively as the singers, and this doesn't always happen.
Woolcock's production is hit and miss. It's gratifyingly large-scale, with some striking watery images; the opening underwater sequence, of pearl fishers swimming slowly down from the flies, for instance, is unforgettable. Dick Bird's sets evocatively summon the Sri Lankan slum and Zurga's humid office. But the village scenes, involving dozens of members of the chorus doggedly going about their individual daily tasks while singing as one, end up looking a bit like a village hall. Woolcock also throws in a feel-bad ending, which is entirely logical. But, for an audience that has spent two hours strenuously suspending disbelief for the sake of the music, it is also a bit unsporting.
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