Bizet's The Pearl Fishers contains one of opera's best known scenes, the "friendship duet" between the fishermen Zurga and Nadir. The opera's proponents, of which Hector Berlioz was one, praise it for a string of wonderful musical numbers; its critics deride it as a "one aria opera" (or, in the case of the critics at its première in 1863, as "sub Wagner"). We went to the ENO's new production to make our own minds up.

© Catherine Ashmore, courtesy of ENO
© Catherine Ashmore, courtesy of ENO

Director Penny Woolcock starts the piece with a masterstroke: as the orchestra plays the prelude, we see a tableau of a pair of divers plying their trade in the ocean, crafted by a seriously clever combination of lights, back projection and actors suspended in harnesses. The effect is extraordinarily realistic and puts you in exactly the right mood for the setting that is to follow. The next set is nearly as spectacular: a true-to-life reconstruction of a South Asian fishing village on stilts, updated to this century. The setting worked brilliantly (although I'm not quite sure why we had the pair of Western tourists snapping cameras amongst the chorus).

As regards the music, I'm on the side of the opera's fans: it's lovely, interesting and inventive. There are some great chorus numbers as well as the showpiece arias and duets. Unfortunately, both tenor Alfie Boe and soprano Hanan Alattar were suffering from a throat infection, so they didn't command the house quite to the extent one might have liked, but both still sang beautifully, as, apart from the odd mishap, did Quinn Kelsey as Zurga, whose Act III performance took charge of the stage as it should.

The problem is this: Bizet's wonderful music is matched to a disastrous libretto. Everything you see written about it raises warning flags: it's described as "an intractable text" and the librettists are said to have "effectively apologised to Bizet for not giving him one of their best efforts". The story itself has plenty of potential (two boys meet girl, both fall in love and their friendship is split, girl is taken away, boys make friends again, girl returns, trouble happens). But the execution doesn't work: the vast majority of the dialogue simply isn't what these characters would say or do in these circumstances. The libretto also suffers from sloppy orientalism. For example, it's fine to centre the piece around a Hindu temple, but not if the characters do a lot of singing about seeing each other in heaven - the Hindu concept of moksha or nirvana has nothing whatsoever to do with life after death in paradise.

The ENO's production of The Pearl Fishers has fantastic sets, great music and some thoroughly creditable singing. But in the end, dramatic opera only works properly when the music is enhancing the story and the characters. You have to believe, and I don't think anything the ENO could have done would have made me do that.