The Pearl Fishers
An Opera in three acts, by Georges Bizet
English National Opera
Leila – Hanan Alattar
Nadir – Alfie Boe
Zurga – Roland Wood
Nourabad – Freddie Tong
Director – Penny Woolcock
Conductor – Rory Macdonald
Not enough pearls. It has become fashionable for opera houses to invite movie directors in for some cinematic sprucing up, hence Rigoletto turned into a Don Corleone clone, Die Zauberflote with puppetry courtesy of The Lion King, and so on. But when English National Opera invited independent filmmaker Penny Woolcock to stage George Bizet’s rarely seen Pearl Fishers, she didn’t look to Hollywood for inspiration but rather to something like a public service message from UNICEF. When the curtain rose we had been helicoptered to Ceylon, the right setting but updated and now seriously impoverished. On a wharf lapped by the sea were jammed native washer women wringing out their bright saris, sadhus bathing from a bucket, Hindu devotees performing temple rites, and anonymous stragglers emptied out of a kebab shop on Brick Lane. When two Western tourists show up handing out alms, they get eager takers. I stared doubtfully. Exotic doesn’t mean Third World. But Woolcock had no political agenda. The extras mingled in Franco Zefferelli fashion, pretending to occupy themselves with everyday life despite the presence of opera singers quayside.
The Pearl Fishers centers on two native fishermen who both pine for a mysterious veiled priestess. Since Zurga is a baritone and Nadir a tenor, it’s a foregone conclusion who will win her. Unfortunately, there is no other plot to speak of. When the opera premiered in Paris in 1863, Bizet was a tyro of twenty-four, not yet the emergent genius of Carmen. Except in one respect. Barely ten minutes into the story, the two men sing a duet about the first time they beheld the priestess, and in their hushed transport our hearts are melted by the sublime melody of “Au fond du temple saint,” which must be reckoned as a stroke of genius, especially among the French, whose greatest composers were always in search of celestial tunes (see Gounod, Saint-Saens, and Offenbach, knights errant in the same quest). Most opera lovers know the classic recording of the duet by Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill, but even when sung by just a capable pair – as it was here by tenor Alfie Boe and baritone Roland Wood – the effect is magical.
The tenor not only gets the girl, but five minutes after “Au fond” he gets an almost equally melting aria. Newcomers sit up expecting more pearls to come, but Bizet’s pen runs dry. Sad to say, there is nothing else, musically speaking, as two hours of Meyerbeer-lite follow, and one’s chin begins to drop on one’s chest. ENO fully realized the problem, and they relied on director Woolcock to throw herself into the breach. She does, sort of. There’s lots of local color, but it’s too much like down and out on the road to Mandalay. The three leads are dressed no differently from the other bedraggled villagers, and Woolcock doesn’t know how to animate them: she favors putting her singers front and center, gazing motionless at the audience, or maybe out to sea. The priestess, Leila, is a lyric part with touches of coloratura, and was nicely sung by Hanan Alattar, a bright-voiced young soprano from Texas. The three leads were all pleasing, even if none had distinctive sounds. Since the opera is sung in English, there was no demand for true French vocal style; the translation had nothing to work with, either, given the libretto’s simple-minded “We used to be friends, but now I am your rival” literalness. Boe was awarded top billing, having won a Tony, not for a musical but for Aussie director Baz Luhrman’s short-lived run of La Boheme on Broadway. That jogged my memory of having seen Boe’s youthful Rodolfo. The voice is a good-sized lyric tenor and carries well; I wish it was less metallic and sweeter when pushed, though.
The orchestra isn’t challenged by Bizet’s score, and all went well under conductor Rory Macdonald. He didn’t dawdle when the great melody made its repeated appearances (Bizet was wise not to let go of this gem). What else can be said about a work that peaks in its first twenty minutes? Woolcock provided two memorable visuals, one magical, the other repellent. The magical one occurred during the short prelude, when the blue scrim curtain turned into the ocean depths and we beheld pearl divers swimming down toward us. Valkyries and Rhinemaidens have hung from harnesses forever, but these pecheurs were so graceful and such perfect mimes of slow-motion swimmers that the audience was entranced. Too bad that they had to go home with the repellent image engraved on their minds. At the climax of the opera Zurga (the baritone) creates a diversion so that Nadir and Leila can run away. He sets the village on fire, and Bizet leaves him on stage alone, noble in sacrificing his unrequited love so that his friend can be happy. Unfortunately, Woolcock couldn’t leave him that way, and during the final chord she has soot-covered villagers run on carrying the charred bodies of dead children in their arms. It was an unspeakably cruel image, one that nothing had prepared us for, and a stain on Bizet’s romantic fantasy.