Opera Review

Bizet The Pearl Fishers English National Opera, The Coliseum, London 6 March 2000

Orientalism is alive and well at ENO. Their ever popular 1987 production of Bizet's opera The Pearl Fishers is revived yet again, fresh as paint and luxuriating in colour which gives a lift to the spirits as the curtain goes up to reveal gold, sparkling costumes, elephant caryatids and a ground densely carpeted with flower petals (hazardous for the dancers!). Perfumed incense from two cauldrons wafts around the auditorium.

This is the Orient as the exotic, erotic 'other', the repository of Western fantasies, the Orient as recreation and consumption, the Nirvana for traveller-pilgrims. There is no pretence at realism and no representation of pearl fishers as working folk and as "inhabitants who survive by diving for pearls". Surviving here means surviving well and well dressed, for our pleasure.

The scene of action is an island in the Indian Ocean. The story had been transposed shortly before the first performance in 1863 from Mexico, another magically imbued place in Western culture, to Ceylon. Considering the controversial involvement of French politics in Mexican affairs at the time, this must have been an astute and politically correct move.

The tale of The Pearl Fishers deals with two rivals for one woman. Into this, sub-texts are woven. We are presented with Leila, the chaste priestess and love object, who is guarded by convention and by the high priest in the temple, dressed and veiled in light and sumptuous Indian wrapping. When she removes her veil she reveals herself as the white woman, empire-style bodiced and coiffed, the real subject of the story. Her counterpart in this production by director Philip Prowse is the proverbial alluring, dark and erotic, ethnic woman, a part taken by Marguerite Porter, a former Principal of the Royal Ballet, eye catching even when she is just lurking around the temple and spying in the background. She is seen at the start ministering to the needs of Durga, who reposes on her lap and concentrates the male audience's wishful fantasies for similar ministrations. However, the dark underside to these fantasies is the danger represented by a dark, and here silently sinister, woman, her supposed capacity for treachery and violence made manifest when she plunges a dagger into Durga, her rejecting lover.

Roberto Salvatori (Zurga) / John Hudson (Nadir) Photographer Bill Rafferty. courtesy ENO
The male friends and rivals in love, Durga and Nadir, who sing together the opera's "big tune" of brotherhood in the first act, are wonderfully characterised with their respective apparel. Even before the action gets under way we know who is winner and who is loser, just by looking at their boots! Red for the hero, black for his counterpart, each with gorgeous costumes to match.

The eroticism inherent in this tale is spiced up in this production with hints at violence, both overt and covert. One could have one's ego boosted, or else take offence, at seeing a lot of females repeatedly prostrating themselves in front of bullying males (the high priest and Durga the ruler in this interpretation). What kind of message do we deduce from the physical pushing around and knocking of Leila and her dark counterpart - awareness of the problematic abuse of women, or justification for Leila's rejection of powerful Durga?

The religious authority of the High Priest and the monks is undercut. A rough and spitting religious elder cannot command our respect. The Buddhist monks carry frivolous, heart-shaped, golden pouches either side of their bodies. Such images could convey a derisory allusion to their culture of begging and, as such, could be perceived as neither fun, nor appropriate, in a multicultural society attempting to build bonds of respect. In the end there is a darker and thought-provoking underside to this seductively luxuriating production.

Musical values are well catered for in this revival by a strong cast, with ENO resident conductor Alex Ingram taking on his first Pearl Fishers. Alycia Fashae fully justified her promotion from cover to prima donna following the withdrawal of Linda Richardson, the late arrival of whose first child had upset ENO schedules! The big first act duet between the newly reconciled former friends goes well, and the famous tune we all know is reprised at intervals later to make sure we never forget it. John Hudson is fine as Nadir, and Roberto Salvatori memorable as Zurga, commanding in voice and telling gesture. The last act was compelling, with a duet between Leila, awaiting execution, and Zurga, torn between remorse and compassion, ending with a final solo as he comes to terms with his own fate, having engineered a last minute escape for the lovers. Strong stuff - the life blood of singers' opera.

Peter & Alexa Woolf

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