Based on recent history, the Coliseum has clearly decided that investing in elaborate sets is a good thing. The fact that this Pearl Fishers is a co-production with the New York Met probably explains any additional opulence. Action occurs in ancient Ceylon, mostly at a water front shantytown, which provides many opportunities for some spectacular visual effects. You will not be disappointed.
Fishing for pearls has very little to do with the story, but it allows the producers to open the proceedings with a clever illusion of diving on stage. There are strong similarities to most openings of Das Rheingold. The end of Act 1 presents an astonishingly well-engineered seascape, and the stage genuinely looks like the sea at night. This comes complete with a slow rolling swell and divers jumping out of a boat into the water. It is quite brilliant.
Act 2 opens with the same effects, only stormier and unfortunately over done. The production continues to impress, however, and Act 4 ends with Zurga setting fire to the stage. It must be said that Zurga is not a great model for civic-minded leadership, which brings us to the plot.
Pearl Fishers is basically a “boy meets girl” story, except there are two boys who are best friends. And the girl is a Hindu priestess called Leila. Quite why there are crosses on all the roofs remains a mystery. One of the boys (Nadir) gets lucky, leading the other (Zurga, who has by now become leader of the village) to order that Nadir and Leila must be executed, yet he saves them in the end. It’s a bit lightweight.
The passionate scene between Nadir and Leila lacks a certain chemistry, but it helps that Sophie Bevan is pretty pulchritudinous. Being a faintly topical issue, my two cents are that good opera should be a feast for the ears and the eyes. It should represent the culmination of outstanding musicianship, singing, staging, and acting, all in support of a powerful and believable story. The effect is diminished if Isolda resembles something cetacean, or Rodolfo weighs 20 stone if he’s an ounce. It’s just another reason why creating an exceptionally good opera is very hard. Fortunately, therefore, this production does not fall short in this area.
On to the music. It might have been a first-night effect, but the notes were not entirely together. When a composer has a simple libretto to score it is understandable that he doesn’t expend all that much emotional energy on the job. Gilbert and Sullivan spring to mind. The Pearl Fishers suffers a bit from this, albeit with suitable deference to Verdi. That said, the orchestra do make a tremendous noise when the storm rolls in, and the videos of breakers crashing over the stage make for some exciting moments. It’s just not quite up to the usual unbeatable standard offered by the ENO, but it is still very good. And Tingaud looks surprisingly like James Levine from behind. The singing is also powerful although Tessier’s tenor lacks some of the lower frequencies that make for a fully rounded timbre.
Overall this is a production that is well worth seeing. The music is good and the staging is excellent. Oh, and don’t forget to clap at the bits you know.