Flaws In This Pearl At ENO

Article @ Morning Star, published 19 June 2014

There could perhaps be no more pertinent time to stage a tale of poverty and superstition like George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers than now, amid the World Cup and favela riots.

The revival by the English National Opera tells the story of two men, Zurga (brought to life by a portentous George Van Bergen) and Nadir (John Tessler), best friends, who betray their oaths for love.

Both have fallen for the charms of Leila (Sophie Bevan), who is unattainable as a high priestess of Brahma.

This is a classic realist-orientalist opera, with the exotic setting of the pearl fishing coasts of Ceylon and it’s given a visually staggering production by the visionary director Penny Woodcock.

Most scenes have the sea — the mythical creator and destroyer of the pearl fishers’ communities — as the central element, none more so than in the two initial scenes where there’s a dazzling depiction of pearl fishing, with actors plunging into a suspended sea.

Opera connoisseurs as well as newcomers watch in awe as the stage is engulfed in blue light.

This opening tableau sets the tone for the story of a fishing town, sheds of corrugated metal for housing built on the waterfront, where beauty is engulfed by utter misery.

Despite the impressive staging, the main duet — an ode to Zurga and Nadir’s camaraderie — lacks a certain momentum, particularly from the tenor Tessler.

And there’s an uncomfortable realisation that despite the opera taking place in south Asia, not one of the main characters is played by a non-white singer.