Thursday 3 June 2010

As subtle as a Hollywood blockbuster

The Pearl Fishers, ENO, Coliseum, London

Georges Bizet, libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré

We start on the sea floor. The sunlight scintillates down through the water, behind the grey gauze that fills the stage. And as the overture builds an atmosphere of mystery and romance, the pale bodies of divers kick their way down and back up, slow and effortful.

And then it starts, the gauze rises, and we’re on a crowded jetty, ramshackle buildings rising on stilts back into the distance, red- and ochre-clothed families meeting, working, trading and singing on every solid inch of this town perched above the shining surface of the water. It’s like being woken from a lyrical dream by a gang of energetic children.

Not that this opening scene lacks beauty, either musically or in the visualisation. And there are many lovely details to enjoy, from the changing light on the sea to the two backpackers who move through the crowd with guidebooks, taking digital photos of the picturesque locals. But Bizet is as subtle as a Hollywood blockbuster stuffed with car chases and explosions (and this critic has grown used to a diet of modern opera, more akin to moody French films full of women gazing out of windows and murmuring ‘Non…’).

Take that on board, though, accept the fact that everyone will sing exactly what they’re thinking, (or an essential chunk of back story you’ll need later on), and Penny Woolcock’s production puts flesh and blood on the raw bones. Bizet’s score foreshadows as well as any Hitchcock violins. But you don’t need the sinister horn notes to see that red-shirted Nadir, returning to the village, brings trouble. Alfie Boe embodies the animal tension - energy held in check, but for how long?

At its heart, the story is a simple love triangle, two men whose friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman. But it’s a bigger story, because the woman in question is a priestess. So yielding to desire is also an act of sacrilege, and that in a society so at the mercy of nature that placating the angry gods of sea and sky is seen as a matter of collective survival. And Nadir’s friend and rival, Zurga, has just been elected leader, with absolute power.

As the inevitable drama unfolds, the sheer scale of the music comes into its own. Soaring duets and virtuoso arias no longer feel excessive when what’s at stake is not only love, but the keeping of sacred promises or – in the eyes of the villagers – the safe return of the divers from the fragile boats at sea. And, like the tragedy, the sea itself builds from a glassy surface to a rolling swell and then a threatening storm beyond the pathetic wire fence that serves to keep people in, but not the destructive force of the ocean out.

Hanan Alattar as Leila, the veiled priestess, and Quinn Kelsey as Zurga, match Alfie Boe’s Nadir for athletic and expressive singing, earning their applause for the set-piece duets and solos. Because the chorus of villagers are largely absent from this piece, an offstage presence called in when needed to exert judgement, or collective punishment, or to plead with the merciless gods.

There is something disquieting about setting this story of superstition, fear and deadly religious law in the present day. The Indian style of the costumes, reflecting Bizet’s naming of Brahma, Shiva, and other Hindu gods, invites recollection of the Tsunami that crushed so many similar communities around the Indian Ocean.

But these people, who were happily taking cash off the backpackers for photographs in Act 1, end by deciding to punish the sacrilegious lovers for the storm that has, apparently, wrecked their town and left them in refugee tents. The same backpackers look on, aghast, as the lovers are doused with petrol. Having scoffed at their cultural tourism earlier, are we meant to feel the same horror as they do, now?

Or are we supposed to learn that local customs are right in a local context, when the laws of the gods have been transgressed? Or that it’s always the little people who suffer, and somebody should feel bad about that? The ending is deliberately unsettling, but I was left unsure what, exactly, I was being asked to be unsettled about.

It’s wonderfully romantic, of course. Apart from the refugee tent scene it is visually delightful. And it has real tunes that will follow you home. The couple next to me, seeing me scribbling illegibly in the dark, told me to say that they loved it (as did my amanuensis) and that it would please the masses. They said it in a slightly self-deprecating way, as if it was embarrassing to enjoy the Hollywood of opera.

Well, I say opera is there to be enjoyed. I like a good car chase. I’m a sucker for a few explosions. And though The Pearl Fishers still isn’t my favourite work, this production brings it to life with the human depth that earns the musical heights.

Till 8 July 2010


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