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.

Runs until 8 July. For details visit:

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