Sunday, 23 October 2016

Les Pêcheurs de perles, English National Opera, 19 October 2016


Zurga – Jacques Imbrailo
Nadir – Robert McPherson
Leïla – Claudia Boyle
Nourabad – James Creswell

Penny Woolcock (director)
Dick Bird (set designs)
Kevin Pollard (costumes)
Jen Schriever, Ian Jackson-French (lighting)
Andrew Dawson (movement)
59 Productions (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Roland Boër (conductor)

Images: Robbie Jack

Devotees of The Pearl Fishers: perhaps you should avert your eyes now. If it is a work you love and/or admire, nothing I might say about it will convince you otherwise, quite the contrary. Nor do I harbour any wish to do so. However, coming to it for the first time, I can only say that it must rank amongst the worst few non-Verdi, non-Donizetti operas I have seen from the benighted ‘repertoire’. That is not a comment on the production, dire though it may be; it is not a comment on the mixed bag of musical performances. The work ‘itself’, though, is something whose alleged attractions I cannot begin to discern.


Carmen it is not; even the blandest of bland Micaëla’s music seems red in tooth and claw compared to anything heard here. Indeed, the best music, such as it was, seemed to lie in the couple of minutes or so of very straightforward orchestral introduction, its slight promise ever remaining unfulfilled. And the story, such as it is? If we are to have Orientalism, might it not at least be a little more interesting than this? Perhaps bored members of a nineteenth-century Parisian audience might have found it mildly, although only mildly, ‘escapist’. To us, it is at best akin to what I imagine a Mills and Boon plot summary to be, albeit without the sex. There is no character development; there are barely any characters. If the relationship between Zurga, the village headman and Nadir, the pearl fisher, might be drawn out to include something homoerotic – it is surely impossible to take seriously the claim that either has any real interest in Leïla, our cipher ‘Priestess of Brahma’ – then that did not happen here.

Nadir (Robert McPherson) and Zurga (Jacques Imbrailo)

For Penny Woolcock’s production, ‘Made for the Met’ written all over it, is almost as bad as the opera itself. Its disingenuous nod to ‘relevance’, pretending somehow to be ‘about’ poverty, even natural disaster, whilst treating the ‘picturesque’ lives of others – Others – in touristic fashion to match any nineteenth-century colonist is unsatisfactory at best. Writing words such as this in a programme note confers in itself meaning and coherence neither upon the note nor upon the production allegedly related to it:
Despite its genesis, the preoccupations of The Pearl Fishers are fiercely contemporary. Climate change and rising sea levels have made ten million people homeless in the Bangladesh Delta alone and they survive on a wing and a prayer. After all, the sea rises higher, we still fall in love with people we’re not supposed to fall in love with, and irrational behaviour is not the exclusive province of others.
Do not worry, ‘colourful’ people: we are irrational too, and we feel your pain! Lengthy scene changes with ill-thought-through, cartoon-like ‘special effects’ do not help. It all looks ‘lovely’, though, especially to a middle-class white audience, amused by colourful make up and costumes, and a few children running around for no obvious reason. It might almost be Deborah Warner’s notorious Messiah ‘on location’. All-out ‘escapist’ fantasy might have been a better bet, or engagement with real colonialism and its aftermath: perhaps even some real attempt at interaction between the two. Naturalism with the figleaf of a socially concerned programme note is not just embarrassing; it is tediously embarrassing.

The ENO Orchestra and Chorus were, as usual, on good, often very good, form. Would that they had had more interesting material with which to work, the choruses in English sounding redolent of minor nineteenth-century anthem-land. Roland Böer’s conducting was somewhat stiff at times, but he seemed to know his way around a work hardly worth getting to know one’s way around. People rave about ‘the duet’; I found it excessively long and inconsequential, not helped by the fact that a considerably superior performance – as throughout – was to be heard from Jacques Imbrailo’s Zurga vis-à-vis Robert McPherson’s strained Nadir. (The character’s name is unsuited neither to the opera as a whole, nor to some of the tuning we endured.) Claudia Boyle handled Leïla’s coloratura well; however, her tone was often pinched earlier on. James Creswell sang well enough as the High Priest, Nourabad. Unsurprisingly, though, I have heard more involving performances from him. Perhaps a great performance and production might have lifted the opera; probably not. In any case, that did not in happen here.

1 comment:

David said...

Have to say I used to think the same, before I (reluctantly) took on a Glyndebourne 'Opera Bite' on the opera. That revealed to me the chaste beauties of a lot of the scoring, and so many inspired ideas (maybe not the choruses or the finales). Made me think it would work best in an intimate treatment at Glyndebourne. All three principals have superb numbers.