Last time round, four years ago, Penny Woolcock’s new production of The Pearl Fishers arguably peaked during the prelude. A poetic underwater sequence had acrobats twisting through the water, with streams of air bubbles projected onto the gauze scrim as they dived down to the seabed. It was gorgeous to look at and worthy of the prelude to Das Rheingold. From there on, the production stuttered and stumbled, the updating to modern-day Sri Lankan shanty town weighed down with messages about climate change and environmental disaster, overwhelming the love triangle where a friendship is torn apart by Leïla, who has forsaken love to become a priestess.

Sophie Bevan (Leïla) © Mike Hoban | ENO
Sophie Bevan (Leïla)
© Mike Hoban | ENO

For this first revival, and presumably connected to its new-found status as a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, Woolcock has gone back to the drawing board to ‘develop the visual language further’. Designer Dick Bird’s shanty town is still there, now prey to advertisers, but shorn of its clapped out television set and the annoying pair of tourists snapping away on digital cameras. Gone too are the ugly barbed wire fences protecting Leïla, the priestess of Brahma, while Zurga’s canvas tent is replaced by a library stuffed full of documents, a desk and a laptop.

Video technology and acrobatics now permeate the production beyond the prelude. We glimpse Leïla during the famous duet; Nadir plunges through the sea during Leïla’s Act II aria, while a tsunami engulfs the shanty town at the end of the same scene. It is frequently beautiful to look at, nowhere more so than when something as simple as a billowing sheet gives the impression of lapping waves beneath the moonlight.

The Pearl Fishers at ENO © Mike Hoban | ENO
The Pearl Fishers at ENO
© Mike Hoban | ENO

Alas, the musical performance is the grit in the oyster and it is a myth that pearls can be formed from grit. Bizet’s opera is often mocked for its clunky plot and its faux-orientalism, but it’s packed with beautiful, perfumed melodies beyond the famous tenor—baritone duet. When sympathetically performed by well-cast singers, it can still enchant. Sadly, poor old Bizet wasn’t well served here. None of the singing was distinguished. Canadian tenor John Tessier at least has the right sort of light, high tenor for the role of Nadir, the pearl diver, but seldom injected any colour into his voice. George von Bergen’s Zurga, the village headman, was handicapped by a wide vibrato and a tendency to bluster and push too hard. Their evergreen duet (“Au fond du temple saint”) was given in its familiar posthumous revision which brings back the ‘big tune’ at its close – an oddity given that ENO claims to use Brad Cohen’s ‘urtext’ edition. 

John Tessier (Nadir), Sophie Bevan (Leïla) and George von Bergen (Zurga) © Mike Hoban | ENO
John Tessier (Nadir), Sophie Bevan (Leïla) and George von Bergen (Zurga)
© Mike Hoban | ENO

Barnaby Rea was miscast, without the necessary bass notes to do the brief role of Nourabad, the High Priest, any justice. Sophie Bevan was announced as indisposed before the performance but had agreed to go on as Leïla; a brave decision but not necessarily a wise one. Martin Fitzpatrick’s awkward translation was rendered all but indecipherable by muddy diction.

The ENO Chorus and Orchestra are often the heroes and heroines of the Coliseum. This evening, however, Jean-Luc Tingaud failed to draw subtlety or nuance from the orchestra. The string sound was oddly lumpen, where gossamer textures were required. Pit-stage co-ordination with the chorus was often awry. With a stronger cast, singing in French, I can imagine this going down a storm at the Met. For now, despite Woolcock’s revised staging, Bizet is still shackled by unidiomatic performances.