Penny Woolcock’s 2010 production for English National Opera of The Pearl Fishers, now enjoying its second revival, has generally been acclaimed for its eye-catching staging. Just as important, however, is the way in which it emphasises the social and political aspects of the piece, as well as the power structures involved. Dick Bird’s set and Jennifer Schriever’s lighting may present an idyllic vision of a ‘traditional’ way of life in the Far East, but we are left to question whether ‘charming’ ramshackle housing is such a virtue in the late twentieth century when, judging from an advertising billboard and television, the action is set.
The fishers’ daily work is so dangerous that not only do they ‘employ’ a priestess with the sole responsibility of ensuring their well being, but they are only too ready to urge the slaughter of two people simply to be assured of their own safety. In this production, however, there are among their number several men dressed in more ‘Western’ suits. The implication is that these individuals run the community (in other words, business) from behind the scenes, and that it is cheaper to sustain the people’s current standard of living and traditional rituals than to pay higher wages and invest in better safety measures. That Zurga’s own clothes feel similar to those of his people, only a little more plush, suggests that he has risen out of his own community but, with his own aspirations, acquired the confidence of the ‘men in suits’ to help get him to where he is. Certainly, he campaigns to be chosen leader as a modern day politician might.
None of this stops many of the visual images from simply feeling beautiful. The Overture is accompanied by fishers diving from the top of the proscenium stage through the air to the floor. They may be professional aerialists on wires but by the time a transparent screen has been placed in front of them, upon which bubbles appear to suggest their breathing patterns, it really looks as if they are diving through water. There is also an array of other excellent, and often low-tech, effects. For example, when Nadir sings ‘Je crois entendre encore’ (you won’t, of course, hear those words in Martin Fitzpatrick’s translation) a couple sail a boat behind him on water made up of sheets. They then dive below the waves by disappearing beneath these sheets with the slickness of their actions carrying off the effect very well. At the other end of the spectrum video projections at the end of Act II, courtesy of 59 Productions, create the impression of a tsunami wave rising higher and higher before engulfing the entire village. These then give way in the gap between Acts II and III to images of the destruction left behind, which look like something we might see if we switched on the news following a natural disaster.
The quartet of principals is for the most part very strong although a few too many difficulties let down the overall impression that they leave. It is certainly possible that a number of those problems seen on opening night will be overcome in subsequent performances, and, if so, this combination of singers could prove very powerful. As Zurga, Jacques Imbrailo displays his trademark ability to combine warmth of tone with depth to produce a very rounded sound, but in Act I he does not assert his baritone sufficiently so that it can feel rather timid. No such problems persist in Acts II and III, however, and his performance of ‘L’orage s’est calmé’ is an undoubted highlight of the evening.
As Nadir, Robert McPherson displays a very intriguing tenor. Its nature suggests that it could all too easily sound screechy but when it really opens up all of the facets to his voice are smoothed out to such an extent that the result is both powerful and aesthetically pleasing. It does not, however, possess instant acceleration and so certain (particularly initial) lines feel significantly weaker. This said, ‘Je crois entendre encore’ represents at least one occasion when McPherson is successful when not asserting his voice so boldly. ‘Au fond du temple saint’, on the other hand, is a slight disappointment. It may not require ‘identical’ voices, as it is about two individual, albeit highly similar, responses to the same woman, but those of Imbrailo and McPherson are so different in nature that it does undermine the effect of the iconic duet. Dramatically, however, it is rendered reasonably effectively, and although the pair look at each other and embrace at the very end they still spend even the final refrain gazing outwards. This suggests that, while neither wishes or aims to trivialise their vow of loyalty to each other, they do find it extremely difficult to get Leïla out of their minds.
Claudia Boyle produces a beautiful sound as Leïla, with the sensitive conquering of the upper lines combining with impeccable phrasing to make her performance of ‘Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre’ extremely effective. However, in Act II she feels too much like an infatuated lover to the detriment of everything else. There need to be greater elements of coolness and distance about her to highlight why she should intrigue both men so much, to reveal the guilt and hence reticence she feels at renewing relations with Nadir, and to befit her role as a priestess whose default mentality would be to retain a certain detachment. This undermines the power of her Act II encounter with Nadir because it removes much of the sense of intrigue at it feeling so ‘forbidden’, and in terms of leaving an impression her very different Act III meeting with Zurga is far more effective. Nevertheless, there remains much to merit this revival in which James Creswell is as masterful as ever as Nourabad, Roland Böer conducts impressively and the chorus is on top form. What remains to be seen is just much higher still it can be raised as the run progresses.