Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Nadir and Zenith ENO Pearl Fishers

"Fabulous" means "derived from fable".  "Fantastic" means "derived from fantasy". This new ENO production of Bizet The Pearl Fishers at the Coliseum, London, is fabulous and fantastic in the true meaning of the words. It's true to the meaning of the opera, too, because fable and fantasy are ways of telling hard truths, disguised in sugar coating..

The world Bizet conjures up in The Pearl Fishers is deliberately, provocatively, over the top. Mass murder and sacrilege! Storms and steamy sex! But it's OK, they're only barbarians. Bizet's glorious tunes further disguise the deeper levels in this opera, so cleverly that it can be dismissed as simplistic schlock. Patrons can sit politely in their boxes, unaware of the real scandal before them.

Extravagant plots need extravagant music and extravagant staging. But this production fills the prelude with a dark, mysterious wash of blue. Gradually, from the gloom emerge two figures, who seem to "swim" effortlessly, suspended in space. Immediately, you know this production, by Penny Woolcock and her team, will be different - and dangerous.

Nadirs and Zeniths permeate this whole opera.  Turbulence is an integral part of this music, torn as it is between dynamic extremes. Bizet's writing movie music before movies, but he's not simply being decorative. The music surges like ocean swells. It's magnificent because the ocean is magnificent, but those soaring crescendi crash downward and shatter. The villagers live at the ocean's edge, but their temple is built high up on the mountain. One moment the choruses are ecstatic, the next they're savage and fearful. The vocal parts rise to dizzying heights, then suddenly change course, throwing most singers off course, however well prepared they may be. Treachery is written into the very soul of this opera, not just the plot.  .

 The villagers are poor, and their lives can be destroyed at any time. Poor as they are, they support an elaborate temple and a non-productive priesthood, which keeps them downtrodden.  Extremes, too,  of squalor and excess. The villagers think that keeping the gods happy will keep them safe.  But when the village is burned and the children die, it's their own king who has done the dirty deed. Bizet tarts the story up in fancy dress, but it's not au fond all so far from France a few years after 1848 and on the verge of the Paris Commune.

The Pearl Fishers sounds delicious, but packs a lethal punch.  There are plenty of villages like this in the Third World, as director Penny Woolcock knows. And they don't all have to be exotic and rural. Indeed, suffering often lies side by side with excess. Hence extremes of vulgar display contrasted with simplicity.  The villagers never know when they might lose all they have, so they make the most of what they've got.  The  villagers in this production steal electricity from the main grid, as people do in the Third World all the time. They want to watch TV and enjoy material goods, and who can blame them? But trailing long cables over water is dangerous, and people get killed all the time.

Dick Bird's set designs surge and move, as restless as the sea (and the music).| He uses simple devices like backcloths for the sea and film projections, combining modern and old. He also extends the dichotomy in the opera by juxtaposing  fake oriental fantasy with recognizably realistic detail. The villagers live in huts built on stilts over the water, which move with the tide. At night, small lights twinkle, so the squalor is transformed, like the fairy lights in the temple. But perhaps the real masterstroke in this production is that it treats the villagers as human beings, not mere ciphers in the background.

This village is a real community, where everyone lives on top of one another, in the most intimate way.  Zurga is one of the people, but elected king.  Leila's probably a village girl, also chosen to perform a function for communal benefit. Usually, Pearl Fishers focuses on the big star numbers, but in many ways, the real stars are the villagers, who somehow keep surviving, whatever Nature throws at them. We listen for the glamour arias, but, like the ocean, what's beneath the surface is more profound. The choruses carry through the idea of sudden, swerving extremes. At one point the villagers are pious, at another, the crowd turns savage. They'll do what their leaders tell them.

Another good reason for listening to the orchestra in this production, rather than jsut the singing. Rory Macdonald understand the dynamics, bringing out the constantly shifting turbulence in the orchestral parts.  It's not nearly as "pretty" as the songs floating above it, but that's the point.

Quinn Kelsey's impressive as Zurga. Dark bass baritone voices often aren't the most sympathetic, but Kelsey animates his singing with sensitive acting,  and the flexibility flows through to his voice. He's able to create a well-rounded Zurga in the best way, for somehow he conveys the mysteries of Zurga's personality, which go deeper than just words. Bird designs Zurga's tent so it's like an oyster shell, gnarled and forbidding on the outside, delicate, soft and tender within.  Kelsey sings Zurga's long arias in Act 3 so thoughtfully that you feel Zurga's torment. This is a Zurga who is brutish because he's inarticulate and can't understand his own feelings. He wants to do the right thing but he's hamfisted emotionally, ad ends up wrecking the whole village. But he's not a bad man. He's a hero in his own way because he faces his inner demons, even if his solution is characteristically inept.

Alfie Boe's Nadir is a good counterfoil to Kelsey's Zurga. I must be the last person in the world not to know who he is, but that's OK.  I listen to  what he does, not what the media present.  He impressed me a lot as Kudrjáš in the recent ENO Katya Kabanova, almost stealing the show. .Nadir isn't as deep a role as Zurga, but that's exactly why it needs a singer who can do freshness and energy.As Zurga says, he's giving his life for Leila and Nadir, that they may live if he can't. Boe is a natural communicator, who makes things interesting. (He was brilliant in Jenufa, too. Since this was written, he's pulled out of opera. Congratulations to the woman who kicked up a fuss because he cancelled some performances. With a fan base that wants consumer product not music, as an artist he's doomed)

ENO's budget doesn't run towards Maria Callas and megastars of that ilk, so it's unfair to judge anything they do by the standards of recordings. Leila's an extremely demanding part, requiring extreme range. Tackling Leila's always a technical feat, so Hanan Alattar's attempt was valiant.

The Pearl Fishers is not an easy opera to stage because it's so exaggerated, and frankly corny.  But Penny Woolcock and her team have genuinely thought it through and found its true depths. This is a very perceptive production, which vindicates the ENO's ideas of bringing in directors from different forms of art. (It doesn't always work.)

One of the more subtle images shows two tourists gawping at the natives, as if they were zoo animals. A small detail, but extremely telling. Tourists only see picture postcard travesties of real life. They think they "know" because they've condescended to spend money and consume. But you can't buy into a culture like buying a T-shirt. Who are the "barbarians" here? This perceptive production shows that we can chose whether we want to be "tourists" with Bizet, or try and think like natives.

Here is a much snappier review in OMH Music.

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