Penny Woolcock’s visually arresting “The Pearl Fishers” returns to the Coliseum in London in a revival of the 2010 English National Opera co-production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York.

The original production was praised for its stunning effects and staging, and this updated production proved mesmerizing, beginning with a beguiling underwater sequence in which pearl fishers, viewed through a gauzy screen, dive and swim, digitally-generated air bubbles trailing their lithe, fluid bodies (in fact, actors suspended on harnesses). When the curtain goes up, the scene is an exotic Ceylonese shanty town: rough wooden houses crowd higgledy-piggledy around the shoreline, tiny lights prick the early morning sky, telegraph cables sag between the buildings, and a cleverly conceived reflective surface across the entire stage creates the sense of water. The villagers gather around the ghats, dressed in sarongs, dhotis and saris in turmeric and paprika colors, and go about their business — hanging out washing, bathing, cooking at the water’s edge, gossiping. You can almost smell the masala dosas frying.

In later scenes, the houses have gone, leaving the glittering ocean across which a fishing boat glides. The illusion of waves is created through ingenious lighting effects and air-filled pillows, set low on the stage, which billow and swell like the sea. Longer scene changes are made behind the gauzy screen onto which are projected images of waves, including an impressive tsunami between Acts II and III.

Leila (Sophie Bevan) arrives (photo credit: ENO / Mike Hoban)

Bizet finished “The Pearl Fishers” in 1863, a year after Ingres painted “The Turkish Bath,” when Europe was gripped with a fervor for Orientalism, the term used by 19th-century Western scholars and artists in their study of Eastern cultures and peoples. At the time, the East was regarded as highly exotic — and erotic — and “The Pearl Fishers” resides in this tradition, with its recreation of an imaginary geography inhabited by ignorant, superstitious people who engage in transgressive sexual practices. The narrative is the age-old love triangle, with the added frisson of friendship, loyalty and religious observance.

In fact, Bizet’s opera is rather thin, particularly in comparison to his much-loved, vibrant “Carmen.” The libretto borders on cringe-making, and in this production unfortunately more than highlighted by the fact that it is sung in English and the language doesn’t always sit comfortably with the phrasing and shape of the music, as it surely would if sung in French. Apart from the famous aria (of which more later), there is little to hold the attention, musically, and while others might highlight inventiveness and variety in Bizet’s writing, this reviewer found it wanting, with Act III verging on turgid. Added to this, the characters are wooden and the narrative hardly believable. But of course, “The Pearl Fishers” is saved by the glorious tenor-and-baritone duet “Au Fond du Temple Saint” in Act I (with fragments and reprises in subsequent acts), whose sweepingly romantic melody stays with you throughout, and long after you have left the opera house, a pleasing earworm which will have you humming on your commute to work. On this occasion, what should have been a voluptuous celebration of friendship and unrequited love lacked conviction and depth: this was the first night and one hopes that as the singers (George von Bergen and John Tessier) settle into their roles, the richness of this great aria will come to the fore.

Soprano Sophie Bevan, making her role debut as Leïla, Priestess of Brahma, was a delight. Arriving by boat, veiled and submissive, her palms pressed together in obeisance, she proved a charmingly winsome and flirtatious Leïla, and full credit must go to Bevan for singing the role so arrestingly while recovering from a bug. By comparison, Zurga, sung by von Bergen, was underplayed, given his role (again one hopes his character will develop over forthcoming performances), but Nadir (Tessier) was more convincing, torn between his friendship with Zurga and his passion for Leïla. An attempt, via the setting, to comment on global warming and developing-world poverty seemed overly worthy and self-conscious, and an amused nod to the exigencies of Indian bureaucracy in the Act III scene in Zurga’s “office,” piled high with friable papers and bulging ledgers on rusting filing cabinets, felt unnecessary.

But if the music doesn’t always hold your attention (and all credit to the orchestra, whose muscular playing contributed much-needed vibrancy, together with some fine chorus singing), the visual effects will, along with the costumes: Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, could have stepped straight off a sculptural frieze on a South Indian temple, with his sadhu’s ash-smeared body, draperies, dreadlocks and top knot. Worth seeing if only for the arresting and finely wrought visual effects and staging.

The Pearl Fishers continues in repertory at ENO.

Date reviewed: Monday 16th June 2014.

Leïla, Sophie Bevan; Nadir, John Tessier; Zurga, George von Bergen; Nourabad, Barnaby Rea; Director, Penny Woolcock; Conductor, Jean-Luc Tingaud; Set Designer, Dick Bird; Costume Designer, Kevin Pollard; Lighting Designer, Jen Schriever; Video Designer, 59 Productions Ltd; Choreographer, Andrew Dawson; Translator, Martin Fitzpatrick. English National Opera, London Coliseum 

(This review was first published on CultureVulture.net)

‘Thebans’ by Julian Anderson. World Premiere, 3rd May 2014, English National Opera at the Coliseum

Disputed parentage, familial in-fighting, incest, the wisdom of elders ignored, political machinations, and a crowd baying for action..….. Not an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, but Ancient Greece: Sophocles’ three Theban plays translated into opera by British composer Julian Anderson and Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. Those familiar with the story of Oedipus Rex know that it can only end badly for ill deeds must be atoned and the gods will have their retribution.

Three full-length plays by Sophocles are telescoped into three acts to create an opera lasting around 100 minutes. The narrative is not chronological, with the middle act moving us forward to ‘Future’ and the death of Antigone. The final act, set in a shattered landscape of bare, blasted trees, pierced by thunder and lightning, plays out the Death of Oedipus, who, blind and frail,  finds peace in death. This last play, ‘Colonus’, was written shortly before Sophocles’ death in 406 BC.

A chronological telling of the story may have made the action more comprehensible, but composer and librettist wanted to create a drama which comments on the main themes of the narrative – human frailty and desperate acts – rather than simply “telling it as it is”. Thus the final act, in which Oedipus appeals to the good nature of the curiously homo-erotic Theseus, a bare-chested golden young King, beautifully, eerily portrayed by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie, has an air of meditation, resignation and completion. It is Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone, who has the final word. Heart-wrenchingly sung by Julia Sporsen, the action closes on her crying out in the wilderness, with no hope of consolation. It is a bleak end to a savage tale.

All is not well in Thebes as the curtain rises on a brutalist scene of Act 1, created by towers of gabions (wire crates filled with rocks) and shadowy lighting. The crowd lie around the stage, cowed by the terrible plague that has infected the city, imploring Oedipus to save Thebes. An air of foreboding pervades the whole scene, enhanced by the chorus’s hissing sibilants and low murmurations. Indeed, throughout the opera, Julian Anderson’s chorus writing is excellent: menacing and accusatory in Act 1, bossy and fascist in Act II, and haunting and disembodied (sung offstage) in the final act.

Susan Bickley as Jocasta, Roland Wood as Oedipus (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The sparse, largely monochrome setting suits Anderson’s music. Sparely scored, it is the haunting, airy winds and crackling percussion which offer most musical impact, together with Frank McGuinness’ earthily poetic libretto. Oedipus, sung with warmth by Roland Wood (apparently suffering from a throat infection, but with no discernible difficulty in his delivery), is flawed and doubting, beset by anger. Creon (Peter Hoare) is mercurial, self-serving, always the politician, his smooth tenor voice perfectly matching his protean personality. Susan Bickley, the one element of colour as Jocasta in turquoise draperies, is at first hectoring, refuting the claims of the strangely androgynous Tiresias, and later panic-stricken and despairing. Much of the solo writing seems closer to recitative rather than aria, and this lends a greater sense of the key players commenting on their, and others’, actions, motives and emotions. Overall, the opera has an air of meditation, encouraging the observer to cogitate on the themes and symbols presented within the drama, rather than actively embrace them. The quality of singing, production, lighting and direction combine to create an opera which is engaging and convincing, yet strangely distant. Worthy, and worth seeing.