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Review: THE PEARL FISHERS, London Coliseum, 19 October 2016

You have to get through an awful lot of shell to even glimpse the jewel at the core of The Pearl Fishers. Bizet's opera is much more than just a good duet - the score is glossy with melody, propelled along by some rollicking choruses - but the situation is so awkward, the plot so absurd (yes, even by operatic standards) that getting to the good stuff can prove almost impossible. Penny Woolcock's 2010 production, revived here for the second time, does a seductive visual dance in a desperate attempt to distract from the opera's flaws, but ends up just drawing more attention to them.

The programme essays make all the right noises about Orientalism, name-checking Said and Spivak, setting us up for Post-Colonialism: The Opera. Which makes it all the more troubling when the production that emerges from Dick Bird's picturesque shanty town is so utterly unreconstructed, so opportunistic in its politics, looking at contemporary Sri Lanka not through the eyes of the philosopher or even the artist, but of a Gap Year student clutching his plastic-wrapped ideals along with his camera.

Woolcock's Sri Lanka (a giant billboard advertisement and a token television tell us that we're not in Ceylon any more, Toto) is a soft-focus fantasy of brightly-clad women, beautiful children and simple lives. The opening pearl-diving sequence is an exquisite three-minute illusion that has lost none of its power since its first outing, but it's an episode unmatched by anything that follows, despite some substantial reworking and restaging.

Gone is Zurga's Act III tent, replaced by an office flooded with papers, a formal, municipal space that makes the horror of Zurga's lunging attack on Leila all the more shocking. This newly politicised element to the relationship between leader and subjects feels like it belongs to an earlier era, a colonial echo that jars against the emphatically contemporary references elsewhere. And then there's the tsunami footage. Photographs of the 2004 disaster are used twice to cover lengthy scene changes - a gesture that feels uncomfortably opportunistic, empty, seizing emotions that are unearned.

Musically, this revival is a mixed affair. Soprano Claudia Boyle makes a radiant, if at times a little too pert, priestess, dispatching Leila's extended solo episodes with bright tone and easy range. Jacques Imbrailo too impresses, his Zurga less weighty, less French in style than some, but sung with musicality and a sense of line often lacking elsewhere in this performance. He would have made just as a good an impression with his shirt on, and the laughter that this bit of eye-candy exploitation provoked on opening night suggests that he should be allowed to remain fully clothed in future. James Creswell, rapidly becoming the company's resident bass, does the business as Nourabad the High Priest.

Tenor Robert McPherson is, however, a problem. His is a curious instrument: bright and forward at volume, it's unnaturally breathy and manufactured when delivering anything below mezzo forte (unfortunate given the delicate dynamic of his famous Romance, which was here pinched and uneasy, often sitting under the note). He was given little help by conductor Roland Boer, whose stilted tempi and lumpy textures also blighted the otherwise excellent ENO Chorus.

You don't have to look far for a metaphor for The Pearl Fishers. Diving for pearls is a risky business, and one by no means certain of reward. ENO can and should do better.

The Pearl Fishers is at the London Coliseum until 2 December

Picture Credit: Robbie Jack

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