“Fabulous” means “derived from fable”. The world Bizet creates in The Pearl Fishers is wildly over the top. Mass murder and sacrilege! Storms and steamy sex! This new production of Pearl Fishers at the ENO brings out the extremes in this opera in full glory and is truly fabulous.
Extravagant plots need extravagant music and extravagant staging. Bizet’s music is so gorgeous that it dazzles, deceptively. But pearl fishers dive deep into the ocean to find their treasures. They don’t do shallow.
In the prelude, the stage is dark. Suddenly two figures “swim” suspended in space. Immediately we know this production will be different and dangerous. Nadirs and zeniths permeate this whole opera. The villagers live in flimsy shacks, at the mercy of storms and sudden disaster. They’re poor, but they support an elaborate mountain temple, and an army of priests, believing that gods may save them.
The village is burned, the children die. But it’s the king, Zurga, who’s done the deed. Director Penny Woolcock knows that there are many villages like this in the real world. Bizet’s music is delicious, but it packs a lethal punch.
Dick Bird’s sets surge and move, as restless as the sea. He uses simple devices, like backcloths for waves, and film projections, but most importantly he shows the villagers as real people, washing or trying to get TV with illegal electricity. Usually all the attention in Pearl Fishers is on the big show numbers. This production’s about the “bigger” stars in many ways.
Zurga’s tent is like an oyster shell, gnarled outside, soft and delicate within. Dark bass roles aren’t often sympathetic, but Quinn Kelsey animates his voice with sensitive acting. Kelsey’s Zurga hints at mysteries in Zurga’s personality, deeper than words alone. He kills, he’s brutish, but he’s a hero in his own way. His solution may be wrong, but he faces his inner dilemmas.
Alfie Boe’s energy makes his Nadir effective, a good counterfoil to Kelsey’s troubled Zurga. He impressed as Kudrj in the recent ENO Katya Kabanova. Nadir is a much bigger part. Boe is an natural communicator, whose enthusiasm enlivens his work. ENO’s budget doesn’t run to Callas, or similar megastars, so it’s unfair to judge performances by those standards. Leila’s a demanding part, with its dynamic extremes, so Hanan Alattar is valiant.
Pearl Fishers isn’t an easy opera to stage because it teeters on the edge of different realities and expectations. Rory Macdonald conducting brought out the inherent turbulence in the music. But full credit should go to Penny Woolcock and her team. This perceptive production finds the hidden pearls in the depths of this magnificent and surprisingly unpredictable opera.