After Zurga torches his village so he can rescue the lovers Nadir and Leïla from their death sentences during the ensuing panic, billowing “smoke” filled the Coliseum stage so enthusiastically that Jacques Imbrailo was all but engulfed. It hung thickly in the air for the chorus' curtain call. The temperature of this Pearl Fishers revival had needed raising, though in truth it was the first scene of Act III, where Zurga's jealousy is rekindled when Leïla pleads for Nadir to be spared, that the performance eventually caught fire.

Robert McPherson (Nadir), Claudia Boyle (Leïla) and Jacques Imbrailo (Zurga) © Robbie Jack
Robert McPherson (Nadir), Claudia Boyle (Leïla) and Jacques Imbrailo (Zurga)
© Robbie Jack

For much of the evening it had all been a little tepid, which is a pity because Penny Woolcock's shanty town production continues to improve with each outing. This is its second revival and, in the meantime, it crossed the Atlantic to grace the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with a starrier cast than English National Opera could ever afford to muster here. “Inspiration from the deep” states the tourist billboard poster, from which the opening sequence takes its cue. The underwater prelude featuring acrobats on fly-wires diving for pearls behind a gauzy scrim continues to entrance, after which the special effects include video projections of the mysterious priestess Leïla during Bizet's famous friendship duet. Oversized sheets conjure up storm-tossed waves, proving that impressive stagecraft doesn't always have to be high tech.

Claudia Boyle (Leïla) © Robbie Jack
Claudia Boyle (Leïla)
© Robbie Jack

Last time round, it was the singers who proved the grit in the oyster. All three main roles require voices at ease in the upper registers, with tenor and soprano having to float heady pianissimo high notes in their arias. This time, ENO has found singers who can negotiate these challenges more naturally. Claudia Boyle sang prettily as Leïla, with lithe coloratura and bell-like tone. Apart from an unfortunate sharp final note, “Comme autrefois dans la nuit” was attractively sung. American tenor Robert McPherson has a very tight, almost saccharine tone, but it’s certainly suited to Nadir’s tender aria “Je crois entendre encore”, which tiptoes high above the stave. He’s not the most magnetic actor, more believable as the loyal pal than as the ardent lover.

It’s easy to see why the villagers elect Zurga as their new leader. South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo, making his ENO debut, oozes charisma and bonhomie. He has a fine lyric baritone, but seemed to be reining it in for much of the evening. Indeed, all the principals, apart from James Creswell’s sturdy Nourabad, sounded a size too small for the venue. Bizet’s opera premiered in 1863 at Paris’ Théâtre Lyrique, a much smaller house than the Coliseum. It felt as if Roland Böer was having to quash the orchestra but, even so, there were passages where the singers struggled to be heard.

Jacques Imbrailo (Zurga) and Claudia Boyle (Leïla) © Robbie Jack
Jacques Imbrailo (Zurga) and Claudia Boyle (Leïla)
© Robbie Jack

The singers are handicapped by Woolcock’s rather astatic staging, not helped by Bizet’s static plot, reliant as it is on mystery, ceremony and ad nauseum repeats of that big tune. The opera doesn’t really come to life until Act III and the confrontation between Zurga and Leïla. This was where Imbrailo and Boyle really delivered, caught in a web woven of desire, desperation and loyalty in an encounter that smouldered with passion. If the torch can be ignited sooner, later performances of this revival should be worth catching.