Although possibly known by many opera lovers only for its famous duet 'Au fond du temple saint' ('Deep in the holy temple') of the male protagonists Nadir and Zurga – friends but rivals in their love for priestess Leila – Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) is tuneful, easy on the ears and thus has endured intermittent popularity (in spite of its only moderately successful premiere in 1863) for the past 140 years or so.
However, soon after the composer's premature death in 1875, a great many changes were already made to Bizet's score and various altered versions have been performed for decades.
For their current production of this opera – their first after a gap of almost twenty-three years for the company – English National Opera is using Brad Cohen's 2002 edition. Cohen went back to Bizet's original sources, apparently to the extent of using even unpublished material. I am not in a position to report on the differences between Cohen's edition – referred to by the programme notes as Urtext – and previous editions. But Cohen's Bizet score is flowing, varied and contains chamber-music like orchestral sensitivity.
The plot of the libretto by Carré and Cormon – authors of librettos for operas, among others, by Auber, Offenbach and Gounod – is simple. It includes male friendship, a love triangle, betrayal and self-sacrifice. Friends Nadir and Zurga were once both in love with Leila the priestess. They decide to forego their love and keep their friendship firm and eternal. However, when years later Leila re-appears, Nadir is unable to suppress his passion for her. Their love union supposedly causes storms and other misfortunes for the pearl fishers of the village. They are meant to be executed but – honouring his friendship with Nadir – Zurga (who is also in love, in vain, with Leila and is jealous of Nadir) helps them to escape and thus takes the villagers' anger on himself. To be more precise, according to the stage directions in the French libretto, Zurga is knifed to death by a villager. However, in Penny Woolcock's staging Zurga is only 'left to face the consequences of his action'.
One of Woolcock's main visual themes appears to be the sea, which – of course – makes sense in an opera about pearl fishers. Indeed, during the overture, Woolcock and her designer team create a beautiful image of the deep blue sea via a transparent blue curtain and three graceful and highly skilful aerial artists 'swimming' in the depths of imaginary water. (The names of the aerial artists are conspicuous by their absence in the programme notes). However, the presence of water, represented by permanently moving sheets of canvas (or silk?) of various sizes, is constant during most of the production. And while admittedly visually attractive, the canvas apparatus – and the crowded shanty-town design of the village huts – takes up far too much space. As a consequence, all the action – whether crowd movements of the villagers or the intimate actions of the main protagonists – is restricted to the front of the stage. Indeed, mostly stuck in their huts built on various levels, the chorus remains largely static in spite of some of their passionate and (if a pun may be allowed) moving music.
Woolcock is a film maker; therefore she could have used her expertise to a larger extent. The screen at the back of the stage could have been used a great deal more to indicate the sea and the poverty of the crowded village with filmed images. However, in Woolcock's concept, the operatic action is restricted to a very small section of the largest stage in London. There are many individual details requiring the villagers, for instance, to make small body movements or changing facial expressions, but while such details would be well appreciated in the cinema, they cannot have the same effect in the upper circle or in the balcony of a large opera house. I hasten to add, that – in spite of the claustrophobic stage images depriving the action from movements – Woolcock's staging is thoughtful and tasteful.
The principal singers visibly and audibly grew in stature during the performance. Tenor Alfie Boe (Nadir) was the first to fully immerse himself into the drama of the action. Soprano Hanan Alattar (Leila) took the longest to relax into her character but she had to cope with some virtuoso vocal requirements (which she fully delivered) and eventually she was fully credible dramatically. Baritone Quinn Kelsey (Zurga) delivered high quality singing and thoughtful characterization.
Although conductor Rory Macdonald seemed to ignore musical diction, the orchestra produced some lovely and sensitive playing. Praise is due to the flute and clarinet soloists and also full marks for the short but exquisite solo cello passage.
If you want a tuneful and tasteful operatic evening, go to see this production. The first night audience loved it.
By Agnes Kory
Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore