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.
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.