Carmen aside, The Pearl Fishers is French composer Georges Bizet’s most famous opera, and the reasons for its popularity aren’t hard to find. On the one hand, set in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and involving priestesses and temples, it carries a strong sense of the exotic and spiritual. On the other, by exploring love, ‘brotherly’ rivalry and sacrifice, it taps into deep human emotions, as well as primal instincts such as survival.
The story takes place among a community of pearl fishers whose daily work is so dangerous that they surround themselves with priests, temples and rituals to ensure the protection of the gods. All sorts of trouble ensues, however, when the priestess introduced to the community, Leïla, proves to be a woman whom two friends, Zurga and Nadir, once fell in love with. They had previously sworn to put their own friendship ahead of any thoughts for her, but once (or even before) she reappears this proves a promise that is difficult to keep.
The opera’s most famous duet is ‘Au fond du temple saint’ (or ‘In the depths of the temple’ since it is sung here in English). This sees the two men recall the moment when they first laid eyes on Leïla, and is executed very well by George von Bergen (Zurga) and John Tessier (Nadir) as they vividly conjure up two people’s individual, yet highly similar, responses to the same woman. The standout performance of the evening, however, comes from Sophie Bevan as the priestess who reveals a voice of exquisite purity, and masterly phrasing.
Penny Woolcock’s staging from 2010 proves successful at conveying both the exoticism and poverty of the setting. The costumes are colourful, and waves lap the shore whether they be portrayed via pleated sheets or video projections. Divers ‘swim’ in mid-air and, even though we know they are suspended, it is still easy to forget this and believe they really are travelling through water. At the same time, the slum-like nature of the people’s dwellings is all too obvious, while the hitherto romanticised waves can suddenly prove overwhelming for characters and audience alike.
Jean-Luc Tinguad’s conducting is very fine and every time the motif from ‘Au fond du temple saint’ recurs it sends tingles down the spine. The ending also proves all the more effective for leaving a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. Usually, we depart this opera with some sense of there being honour in self-sacrifice and defeat, but here there seems to be very little that is noble in the fate that has befallen some of the fishing community.
Until 5 July (nine performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES with start times of 15.00, 18.30 and 19.30. For tickets (£12-£110) visit the English National Opera website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the ENO press team.