English National Opera – The Pearl Fishers

The Pearl Fishers – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Eugène Cormon & Michel Carré [performed in Brad Cohen’s edition and sung in an English translation by Martin Fitzpatrick with English surtitles]

Zurga – Quinn Kelsey
Nadir – Alfie Boe
Leïla – Hanan Alattar
Nourabad – Freddie Tong

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Rory Macdonald

Penny Woolcock – Director
Dick Bird – Set design
Kevin Pollard – Costume design
Jennifer Schriever – Lighting design
Andrew Dawson – Choreography
Fifty-Nine productions – Video Design

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 1 June, 2010
Venue: The Coliseum, London

It’s easy to a bit sniffy and patronising about Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” given that famous (dare one say hackneyed?) duet. The work’s first critics were, and even today’s most open-minded critics may be tempted to appear a bit jaded about the opera’s merits. But the public always seems to respond to the work – no doubt because of the duet – but when even non-operaphiles have heard of Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill because of it one should be thankful! The truth is also that this opera, written by the composer in his mid-twenties, brims over with melodic invention and with some pleasing orchestral dances and choral effects that lend a distinctive quality to the exotic settings. The story, a tad predictable, is not the most inspiring either, but this opening-night showed that with some well-matched principals and a straightforward production that Bizet’s inspiration is more than enough to sustain an evening.

Penny Woolcock’s direction opens with an arresting design (a mix of video and live acrobats) showing pearl-fishers diving to the ocean floor to find their trade before the curtain rises to reveal an almost timeless overcrowded and dangerously constructed shanty community in a tropical setting – only some modern costuming, a photographing tourist and some ad-hoc electrics demonstrate that the action had been updated to around the present time. Some of the water-effects such as the realistic boats really helped create atmosphere too. The settings also seemed to help concentrate the choral sound and the singers were placed very far forward on the stage. Direction is generally much as one would expect and one could argue that it was hardly subtle – however it did not overload the action with unnecessary distractions or directorial tics.

Much really rests on the three principals and in Quinn Kelsey ENO is fortunate to have someone who can do justice to the considerable demands of the role of Zurga. Throughout Kelsey sang with a full-throated and velvety sound, right up to the topmost reaches of this high-lying baritone role. He also has the power and colours to accent the character’s more angry and dramatic outbursts. Indeed, he was at his best in the Act Three encounter with the pleading Leïla, where even Zurga’s rather abrupt change of allegiance with regard to Nadir seemed credible. Here is a singer who has no need of surtitles to make himself understood!

As the rather more feckless Nadir Alfie Boe also impressed with his generally honeyed singing in the more lyrical, quiet and high-lying moments, where his voice soared nicely. Only occasionally in ‘Je crois entendre encore’ did one momentarily wish for a little more airiness to the tone. He also has enough dramatic bite for the later impassioned and vehement moments. He also blended well with Hanan Alattar’s Leïla. Perhaps Leïla is the hardest part to pull off for she has to have the flexibility and ethereal quality for the more exotic moments and then rise to the forthright demands of the final act. Alattar’s tone is generally light and appealing and retains these qualities well even when taxed by some of the writing. She has lovely and fluid scales and a pleasingly precise trill as well; her singing has all the necessary bite needed. Her interpretation was straightforward and only marred by spending quite so much time putting her veil on or off. In the thankless role of Nourabad Freddie Tong managed to generate a certain presence.

In the pit matters were also effective under Rory Macdonald with Bizet’s effects having the space they need without being over-indulged, and the reedy woodwind and string effects were notable in the romantic passages, and the storm and angry-crowd scenes had power too.

So hackneyed it may perhaps be, but this was an enjoyable evening and one that should pull in the punters … and lovers of THAT duet.

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