The Pearl Fishers

Bizet's "bromance" strikes a chord with a modern audience.

The Pearl Fishers
Coliseum, London WC2

It says something about modern audiences that Georges Bizet is better known for that racy little strumpet Carmen than for The Pearl Fishers, his moralising tale of friendship, clemency and self-sacrifice. Neither was a great success at its premiere (the latter was first performed in Paris in 1863), but over time raunch seems to have won out over restraint.

In recent years, however, The Pearl Fishers has enjoyed increasing attention from the big companies. The discovery of an original score by the conductor Brad Cohen in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2002 threw a spotlight on the orchestration, which had been "improved" by the Choudens publishing firm after Bizet's death. What's more, the narrative, of two male protagonists, Nadir and Zurga, who vow that their shared love for the Hindu priestess Leïla will not threaten their friendship, has since found a contemporary resonance. After all, the "bromance" is now a genre in its own right.

Penny Woolcock's new staging offers little in the way of fresh ideas, but is solid and entertaining nonetheless. Last year her production of John Adams's Doctor Atomic played in the same house to great acclaim, but she is first and foremost a film director: special effects feature prominently here and she has an eye for detail.

After a ravishing overture scene in which divers plunge through a blue haze, the first act opens on to the hustle and bustle of a modern-day Sri Lankan shanty town. This is The Pearl Fishers inspired by Slumdog Millionaire: people cluster all over Dick Bird's ingenious sets amid a tangle of telephone wires and fairy lights.

And although Woolcock acknowledges Bizet's awkward orientalism with a couple of prying tourists, her focus is on high-class aesthetics: a surging seascape is evoked with acres of quivering silk, Leïla is delivered to her first scene by motorboat and there are two rather misguided attempts at video mirage.

Such techno-wizardry always threatens to upstage a cast but the singers more than hold their own. Indeed, Alfie Boe and Quinn Kelsey, as Nadir and Zurga respectively, offer two of the best reasons to catch this show. Not only is Boe one of the "nation's favourite" singers (a curse if ever there was one), but his warm and lyrical tenor puts him up there with the best of them, and his characterisation of Nadir bristles with virility. As Zurga, Kelsey maintains an authoritative presence and complements this with a firm and wonderfully resonant baritone. Their duet is the highlight it claims to be.

It is perhaps only fitting that the soprano takes a back-seat role, but I expected more from Hanan Alattar's Leïla. This young American-born singer certainly plays the part with conviction, conveying well the dilemma of religious and romantic commitment. Technically, too, she proves secure, hitting high notes head-on. But her soprano sounds thin, even shrill at times and, as if to compensate, she tends towards heavy vibrato.

The ENO Chorus is spoilt in this piece, especially the male voices, and sings with thrilling aplomb. Likewise, Rory Macdonald, a young conductor who was widely praised for his Barber of Seville at ENO last year, gives an impressive performance from the orchestra pit. His slick yet nuanced account presents this music, dismissed by so many as facile and self-indulgent, in the best possible light.

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This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis