The following day 4 April I saw, at the Coliseum, ENO in Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) by Georges Bizet, libretto by Eugene Cormon and Michael Carre; conducted by Michael Lloyd. It was not too successful when first performed in Paris in 1863. (It was said: Bizet showed for the first time in this his liking for Oriental colouring but was criticised for being too much influenced by Gounod and Verdi. As the libretto gave little scope for characteristic studies Bizet was unable to give of his best). He wrote The Pearl Fishers 12 years before his much great success, that of Carmen.

The action takes place in Ceylon where the inhabitants survive by diving for pearls. Zurga tells them they should choose a leader, and they unanimously swear loyalty to him. Nadir returns to the island and is recognized by Zurga as his old companion. On their travels together, in a temple at Kandy, they had both fallen in love with the priestess. They had separated because of this rivalry; now they reaffirm their friendship, vowing that the memory of the priestess will not come between them.

A priestess, chosen for her purity from all the temples of the island, is brought by the priest Nourabad to preside over the ceremonies to protect the divers. Her singing is to charm the demons of the deep and to ward off the spirits of the storm. Although she is veiled, Nadir recognizes her voice as that of the priestess he loves. Zurga imposes an oath of chastity upon her on pain of death; her reward for keeping the divers same from harm will be their finest pearl. Nadir listens as Leila begins her incantation. Finally he can resist no longer and calls up to her; she breaks off, answering his love. They are interrupted by Nourabad, who tells Leila that the divers have returned safely, and that she can now sleep until morning in the sanctuary. He stresses the importance of her vow.

As proof of her ability to keep her promise she tells him how, as a little girl, she protected a fugitive and never revealed him to his pursuers. In gratitude, the man she saved gave her a necklace, which she wears to this day. She falls asleep dreaming of Nadir. He makes his way into the sacred enclosure and they are rapturously reunited. But they are observed and, as a violent storm breaks overhead, they are captured and denounced for sacrilege by Nourabad. Zurga tries to protect his friend from the fury of the superstitious natives, who demand his immediate death. Nourabad whips up their frenzy and Leila’s veil is torn from her.

When Zurga recognises her as the priestess from the temple in Kandy, he sees that Nadir has betrayed their oath to forget her and angrily demands death for the guilty couple. Zurga’s anger has passed and he sadly reflects on Nadir’s fate. Leila pleads for him, saying that she alone was culpable. For the first time she sees that Zurga loves her. He relents, but his jealously reawakens when she shows how much she loves his rival. He allows Nourabad to take her to the sacrificial pyre. Before she goes, however, she gives him a necklace to be sent to her mother. With a cry of recognition, he runs after them to save her.

The pearl fishers prepare for the ritual deaths of Leila and Nadir, to take place as the sun rises. At the last moment Zurga stops them with the news that their camp is on fire, and all the women and children are in danger. He reveals to the captives that it was he that Leila saved so many years ago, and that now he must repay his debt of gratitude for her bravery. He has himself fired the camp in order to hive them a chance to get away, and gratefully, the make their escape. Zurga is left alone to face the consequences of his actions.

Again, the opera is a co-production with Opera North. Zurga was performed by Roberto Salvatori, Nadir by Rhys Meiron, Leila by Judith Howarth and Nourabad by Mark Richardson.

The great tenor/baritone duet of Act I is the aria for which the opera is best remembered – “Au Fond du temple”. Other highlights are Nadir’s gentle Siciliano romance “Je crois entendre“ and Leila and Nadir’s love duet “Ton Coeur n’a pas compri le mien“.

Marguerite Porter, a former ballet star – she was a senior principal dancer with the Royal Ballet for many years – returns to play a non-singing shadowy woman in every scene, as confidante, observer and animator and, finally, revenges, giving the opera some dignity in what is a rather ‘camp’ absurd production. She stalks Zurga, listens in to all the conversations, is jealous of Leila, and does some fancy posing: an idea of the director’s but somewhat irritating and not really clear why she is there. She wrote her autobiography Ballerina: A Dancer’s Life in 1990 in which she talks of the strains and stresses of a dancer’s life and the constant bickering amongst the company. She retired to marry the actor Nicky Henson. As since then she has done quite a bit of chorography of various productions I san only presume she now works on a free-lance basis.


Verinha Ottoni.


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