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Bizet The Pearl Fishers

Leila Hanan Alattar
Nadir Alfie Boe
Zurga Quinn Kelsey
Nourabad Freddie Tong

Conductor Rory Macdonald
Director Penny Woolcock
Set Designer Dick Bird
Costume Designer Kevin Pollard;
Lighting Designer Jennifer Schriever;
Video Design Fifty Nine Productions
Movement Director Andrew Dawson

ENO at The Coliseum, London, 1st June 2010

ENO's new Pearl Fishers is eye catching at the start, though its visual impact diminishes with each succeeding scene.

Musically, there's another fine Zurga, but otherwise it has nothing on our memories of the 1987 production reviewed in March 2000.

The overture has us under water with balletic pearl divers; the curtain rises upon a piled-up, precarious looking shanty town at the water's edge; simulated waves (a hardy old stage effect) billowing around the background, often too enthusiatically for the supposedly calm weather before the storm.

The scene is set for a present-day take upon the "Orient" in our culture; how far though is it still a repository of Western fantasies of the Orient as recreation and consumption, the Nirvana for traveller pilgrims in the 1987 production, so close to 19th C "Orientalism"?

Penny Woolcock makes a valiant attempt to update this opera into more respectful and pluralistic conceptions. There are more hints at outwardly realistic representations, with a tacit acknowledgment that the balance of power between different cultures has shifted. We Westerners are now expected tp pay for 'taking' something, this shift beautifuly encapsulated in the cameos of Western back-packers paying to take flash photos of the natives; and the residents have to make do with an ancient TV which doesn't work...

But Woolcock and her colleagues were left with the text - by two librettists who apologised to Bizet for having made such a bad job of it!

It comes down to a typically western plot, a love triangle, two male friends rivals for a woman who is supposed to remain chaste and pure like 'Holy Mary'. When they don't play acording to the rules, violence erupts.

The distancing into a foreign culture of physical abuse of the woman (women) remains problematic. The recieved 'Orientalist' ideas of the 'others' as exotic, erotic, unstable or dangerous, continues to be fed into our culture. The climax of Bizet's opera presents us with an unreasonable oriental who is prepared to torch a whole village to horrible death to annul his death sentence for the 'guilty couple'. We, a civilised Western audience, can feel comfortably superior because we would find a patently more humane, reasonable and simpler resolution to the problem of how to let the couple 'get away with it'.

But ENO's team had to put this tangled, problematic fabric into an opera, Bizet's piece which has survived only because of his wonderfully seductive tunes, the raison d'etre for its revivals around the world's opera houses, with the easy pleasure they give to multitudes seeking a pleasant night out and glad to have some pretty pictures, utilising modern theatrical stagecraft and the newest world of video to titivate with an enhanced illusion in this technologically ever more sophisticated age.

Was it all worth it? For us, no.

The orchestra and chorus were fine under Rory Macdonald, as they had been for Alex Ingram and his predecessors in the pit. Alfie Boe was visibly athletic and sang forthrightly, if a bit unvaryingly loud. Hanan Alattar was disappointingly variable, not adequate for the central part, certainly less commendable than the ENO understudy Alycia Fashae, who did so well when propelled centre stage for our 2000 ENO Pearl Fishers.

But Woolcock's update will probably do well enough on the back of those Bizet tunes; it is easy to suspend disbelief in the opera house, and the team managed to enthuse the first night audience by organising enough curtain calls for ENO to rate the show a great success, by judicious quotes cut from the very mixed reviews [R]...

Alexa Woolf