The Pearl Fishers - English National Opera, 4 June 2010
Aerialists ‘swimming’ behind a rippling blue undersea projection accompany the prelude with a stunning, eerie beauty. After that, Penny Woolcock’s new production plunges to depths previously uncharted by even the notoriously variable ENO.
She begins at a disadvantage. There’s little for a director to grab hold of in Les pêcheurs de perles: dramatically unconvincing in its original language, rendered even sillier in this tepid translation, and with only one decent tune to its name.
With a background in film directing, Woolcock falls back on letting the images tell the story. This is a fatal mistake when the budget can only scrape up two sets – a very plausible shanty town on stilts lit by Islingtonian fairy lights, and a rather more economical mini tent in front of the curtain.
Some of the technical details are impressively realised. A motor boat glides across a glassy inlet. A diver plunges into waves created by ripply projections on an artfully-wiggled groundsheet. But it’s all too West End-musical, prey in casting and costuming to the generic ‘exoticism’ of which its composer has been justly accused. And it doesn’t compensate for what appears to be zero direction of the principals. Take away the sets and you’d have no idea of who’s talking to who or what they’re trying to express, let alone the story. So much for ENO's aspirations to the cutting edge, this is even less adventurous than Oliver. It's decorator opera of the worst sort, beansprout-Zeffirelli.
If the music was any good it wouldn’t matter, but on this occasion it wasn’t. Indulgence was sought for both Hanan Alattar (Leila) and later Alfie Boe (Nadir) due to severe throat infections, but no excuses were made for the muffled and cracking baritone of Quinn Kelsey (Zurga). In the pit, Rory Macdonald sounded as if he’d lost the will to live. I almost left at the interval – whatever perverse impulse persuaded me to stay wasn’t rewarded by any improvement in the second half. I only paid £20 for my discount ticket, but I still feel robbed. The Royal Opera House’s forthcoming concert version won’t have to work hard to trump this dismal display.