Saturday, June 28, 2014


Scene from The Pearl Fishers. (c) ENO / Mike Hoban

Reviewed by James Karas

“There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music” was journalist Benoit  Jouvin’s sarcastic comment when he saw Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

Director Penny Woolcock and Set Designer Dick Bird disagree emphatically with that comment. In their production for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, they have gone out of their way to prove that there are indeed fishermen in the opera and you can see them under water looking for pearls. There is no lack of musical pearls either, Jouvin’s assessment notwithstanding.

The Pearl Fishers requires only four singers aside from the chorus and the ENO production has fairly good luck with the young performers at hand. Soprano Sophie Bevan does a very creditable job as Leila, the Priestess of Brahma. She is loved by two men who have sworn to keep their hands off her. She has some fine duets with them. The plot calls for her to wear a veil for much of the time and that is unfortunate.

Baritone George von Bergen plays Zurga, the man who gets elected dictator in the first three minutes of the opera. His life was saved by Leila and he is in love with her. Von Bergen has a good, resonant voice and he exuded authority as the chief honcho of the village.

Canadian tenor John Tessier sings Nadir (and gets the girl because he is a tenor). He has a supple and well-honed voice and his Nadir is quite convincing. Bass Barnaby Rea is the High Priest Nourabad, a relatively minor role but he does get to show off his low good effect.

Bizet provides some fine and showy music for the chorus and the ENO singer take full advantage of it.

The real success of the production lies in the work of Woolcock and Bird. The opera is set on the coast of Ceylon and you may expect an expanse of sandy beach with blue sea stretching to the horizon. Woolcock takes a dimmer and darker view of the opera. When the curtain goes up, the stage of the Coliseum looks like the bottom of the sea, dark and forbidding. There are divers in the water and the sky above is threatening. The coastal village consists of shacks.

We will see the divers, the billowing and menacing waves, and the poor village again. This is no coastal paradise. Religion or indeed superstition is the guiding principle of the lives of the fishermen who seek protection from the elements.

Woolcock has come up with a bold interpretation of the opera. The force and violence of the ocean is projected on a large screen, indeed for several minutes the entire height and width of the stage is taken up by a black-and-white video of surging waves. The sky is equally hostile and an entire life cycle is created for the pearl fishers.

The love triangle gains depth by not being set against an azure beach. In the final scene, Zurga sets the entire village on fire in order to avoid having to execute Nadir and Leila. This act of extreme violence fits with Woolcock’s view of the opera as inhabiting a world of elemental forces rather than a love triangle on the beach. In the final scene, we see women carrying their dead children following the torching of their homes.         
A memorable production of an infrequently seen opera.

The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet opened on June 16 and will be performed nine times in repertory until July 5, 2014 at London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Production image - Upstairs and Downstairs. Copyright ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Reviewed by James Karas

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a smorgasbord of an opera that seems to suffer from a serious identity crisis. It has a Prologue with dialogue and singing set in a Viennese mansion where the wealthy has plans for lavish entertainment. If all goes well, there will be an opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, a comedy, The Fickle Zerbinetta and fireworks.

All does not go well. There is not enough time for the opera and the comedy because that will interfere with the fireworks. The solution: combine the opera and the comedy. Tragedy-cum-comedy on one plate nicely tossed together like a salade macedoine. That is a real identity crisis.

The Royal Opera House has revived its 2002 production by Christof Loy conducted by Antonio Pappano. It must be judged a success for the imaginative design and direction with a first rate cast and identity be damned. After more than a century it should figure out where it stands.

The vocal power and beauty belong to Karita Mattila and Jane Archibald. Mattila is the Prima Donna in the Prologue and the long-suffering Ariadne in the Opera. She has a lustrous voice and contends with some almost Wagnerian demands on it with unerring success.

Canadian soprano Archibald has the more fun role of Zerbinetta in both the Prologue and the Opera. Torontonians will recall that she sang the role he role with the Canadian Opera Company in 2011 and managed the vocal acrobatics and the comic business demanded of her with aplomb then and now.

The opera has a dramatic (very dramatic) Tenor in the Prologue who becomes Bacchus is the Opera and Roberto Sacco soars through the role. Veteran baritone Thomas Allen recreates the role of the Music Master and sings well despite a ridiculous wig.

The opera has three singers (Sofia Fomina, Kiandra Howarth, and Karen Cargill) in the Prologue who become a Naiad, a Dryad and Echo in the Opera and sing well in both.

The Prologue takes place is two worlds: “upstairs” where the dinner guests are received in palatial surroundings and “downstairs” where the producers of the Opera and the comedy bicker. There is also the third world of Naxos in the Opera.

Loy and Designer Herbert Murauer have come up with a brilliant design to show the upstairs and the downstairs. As the guests and artists arrive, the first are led to the main floor of the house and the second are directed to an elevator. The elevator goes “down” by having the main floor raised. As the saying goes, if you can’t raise the bridge, lower the river. In this case it works in reverse and it is an eye-catching and brilliant tableaux, to say the least.

Antonio Pappano conducted the original Loy production in 2002 and he and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House handled the score with assurance.

Sigmund Freud was in his heyday when Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal composed the opera in 1912 and revised it 1916. If there were any issues of identity, there was room for all of them on his couch. I have a feeling we are the ones with the identity issues. Where is Sigmund when you need him!

Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss opened on June 25 and will be performed five times until July 13, 2014 on various dates at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England.