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The Pearl Fishers

Before the opera began, a man came out on stage, spotlit, with a microphone.
He introduced himself as the head of casting.
He said that the actor singing the part of the male romantic lead had been suffering from a chest infection. He had been getting better until last night, when he got much worse. He is not here tonight.
He told us that there was, as there should be, an understudy. The understudy had a cold and could not sing. But he was here tonight.
This is not an opera which is produced all that often. (Indeed, this was the first time I saw it.) But they had found someone else who was here in the country, rehearsing for Glyndebourne, and had sung the part. A long time ago.
He was here tonight, and would be singing the part from the side of the stage.
In French.

The audience burst into collective hilarity.

The original libretto for the Pearl Fishers was written in French, but the ENO was performing it in English. The whole cast had trained in English and could hardly change now. This was particularly funny (when I paused to think about it), because the understudy acting out the role of Nadir was mouthing the words, to look more authentic playing the role physically on stage. Only he was mouthing them in English while they were being sung in French.

"Au fond du temple saint" was, to my delight and surprise, sung entirely in French. Clearly the actor singing Zurga knew both versions already. The duets between Nadir and Leila, on the other hand, were entirely bilingual. It mostly worked, but there were moments when it didn't quite mesh. On the other hand, I suspect they also had had almost no opportunity to rehearse together first - if, indeed, any at all!

But the show must go on - and so it did.

Musically, some of Bizet's best work in this opera is with the crowd scenes. The villagers are a major part of plot, from calming the storm through mass prayer, to a crowd frenzy calling for blood. "Au fond du temple saint" was the music from it I always loved but now that I have seen the whole thing, the opera as a whole really stands on the crowd scenes. Most of the rest - i.e. the plot - is negligible by comparison.

I really liked the set design for it. The staging was based on some specific, distinctive cliff-littered village on a coast of modern Sri Lanka. Corrugated-iron roofs covered buildings balanced on layers of rickety walkways over the sheen of water. Jury-rigged electricity powered occasional light bulbs and an old shared television. Western tourists visited the village at the beginning, equipped with shiny new digital cameras.

The water, in its multiple forms, was really what made the staging. Before the curtain rose, we had pearl divers, swimming down through the height of the stage to collect pearls from the bottom, with blue and bubbles rising up on the screen in front of them, sunlight sifting into the water's depths. The village as we first see it is perched on smooth, shiny water, squares of shine laid down flat on the floor, but made magic by the smooth drift of a boat across them. The second act shifts to wilder, fabric-based waters, a boat bobbing on them while pearl fishers dive beneath the visible moonlit surface, before, later, churning in high, overwhelming slopes which nibble away at the temple's structure.

Costuming, especially for the crowd, was a wash of color, vivid hues of reds, warm colors, through to dingy greys and blacks. Leila unlayered, over the plot, from red down to bright saffron yellow.

I would love to see this opera again some day in a more wholly coherent (mono-lingual) production, but the company rose admirably to the challenge of finding an alternative singer - and I'm rather charmed to have had the chance to hear an accidentally bi-lingual opera.


Afterward, coming out into the night, music caught my ear. The Royal Ballet was performing live, as broadcast on an enormous screen in the middle of Trafalgar Square. I joined the crowd for the delight of watching Symphony in C - appropriately enough, also by Bizet! It's good to be in London.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
sioneva
Jun. 10th, 2010 11:14 pm (UTC)
I think there's something quite lovely in having it be bilingual - it's certainly the only performance that you will ever hear that is quite like it!

marzapane
Jun. 11th, 2010 03:33 am (UTC)
Wow, that's crazy! Glad it went well anyway.
gillpolack
Jun. 11th, 2010 04:36 am (UTC)
I love the Pearl Fishers (I especially love the male duet and it's now my earworm, thanks to you). When I was in my teens there were at least two productions in Melbourne, so I was certain it was one of the most produced operas of all time. I've never heard it in mixed langauges, though!
drpete
Jun. 11th, 2010 06:09 am (UTC)
Suppose someone came on stage at the beginning of a gig and said that Pink Floyd were unable to perform that evening; that they'd tried to get The Australian Pink Floyd to fill in - but they were unavailable, but they'd got a few blokes who had sung a few Pink Floyd songs once to have a stab at the gig, there would be a riot and refunds or rescheduling. How is classical music different?
sollersuk
Jun. 11th, 2010 06:53 am (UTC)
Because at the ENO it's more about the music and less about the singer.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 11th, 2010 08:56 am (UTC)
pearl fishers
I was there last night as well and after the intial disappointment got really caught up in the performance. Some of the visual affects were stunning. Besides the divers at the start and the great opening scene I also loved the boat rocking on the sea as young boys dived into the waves. I still don't know how they did it. I had never seen the opera before and was captivated by some of the music. I got the impression - admittedly I was up in the upper circle that the understudy was mouthing it in french. Considering the lack of preparation time, I thought they carried it off reasonably well. In the end Leila was the weakest singer. She didn't have the presence or the voice.
desperance
Jun. 11th, 2010 11:36 am (UTC)
Hee. That is just too joyful. (Me, I have long wished that ENO would sing in the original language. I know that translation is their schtick, but I hate it.)

Also, boats. Way back in the farbeyond, I saw a production of Britten's Death in Venice that had a Very Complicated Set with Actual Gondolas (gondoli?). That would glide beautifully onstage - and then get stuck, and not glide off as was proper. My chief memory is stage hands clad in black crawling around onstage, pushing recalcitrant boats hither and yon...
hobbitblue
Jun. 11th, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
can you imagine the behind the scenes panic trying to find *anyone* without a cold and with a knowledge of the music? Hats off to them for trying, and sounds like it almost succeeded.. other than the famous duet I'm not sure I've heard any of the other music so its good you had a chance to watch the whole thing, even in a rather unique version ;)
heleninwales
Jun. 11th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
That's wonderful! I'm glad it worked, more or less and your evening wasn't spoilt.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 13th, 2010 03:10 am (UTC)
Miss Pacheのピンクゴールドがほしい。
これ、正規代理店では1,940,000円もするみたい。。。。
なんとか120万円くらいで見つけたい。
(Anonymous)
Jun. 13th, 2010 03:11 am (UTC)
名前が悪すぎる?
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )