Powered by some of the lushest arias and duets in the canon, Bizet’s pearl-fishers have become synonymous with Oriental chic. But one could argue – as Penny Woolcock did in her 2010 production for ENO – that this opera’s ‘savage’ backdrop has more relevance today than it did in 1863.
The drama unfolds in a dirt-poor Sri Lankan fishing village where people pray to the gods for survival in the face of huge natural odds; add in climate change, and you’ve got a tale for our times.
Whatever you think of such a didactic approach, one thing is certain: this opera is so weak dramatically that a strong directorial concept is essential. Oliver Platt’s production begins with the villagers streaming forth from the grand entrance to Holland Park’s mock-Jacobean mansion, and arranging themselves as though for a window display at Harvey Nick’s.
The Indian dancers and the ubiquitous saffron costumes bespeak an attempt at authenticity which is undercut by the fact that the pasty-faced Londoners in the chorus wear absolutely no make-up; the movement direction is pure am-dram. Our first sight of the male protagonists consists of head-fisherman Zurga greeting his long-lost friend Nadir while gazing resolutely in the wrong direction, and when they do fling their arms round each other it’s in the most unnatural-looking embrace I’ve ever seen.
But whatever this director’s thoughts – or non-thoughts – his four leading singers have such a passionately clear agenda that this story of passion, jealousy, and triumphant blood-brotherhood comes compellingly across. Bass Keel Watson’s Nourabad makes a very credible high-priest; baritone Grant Doyle’s Zurga is vividly characterised and - barring some muffed high notes - bravely sung; after a slow start, tenor Jung Soo Yun’s Nadir hits the heights with an exquisitely-spun falsetto. Soula Parassidis has the requisite physical glamour for the mysterious and alluring Leila, and when she opens up in her big recitative she reveals a gleaming fullness of tone.
However, Bizet’s French coloratura demands a lighter and more flexible sound than hers, which is more suited to Italian bel canto. Such things matter in a work which depends so heavily on its soloists.
But conductor Matthew Waldren extracts some very fine singing and playing from his chorus and orchestra, whose violist, oboist, and harpist rise nobly to their respective challenges. This may be in effect a semi-staged performance – there’s not even a whiff of the sea - but musically it’s pretty much the biz.