Pearl Fisher Goes Slumming, Brazen Carmen: U.K. Stage

Tara Venditti and Sean Ruan
Tara Venditti and Sean Ruane in "Carmen" at Opera Holland Park, London. American mezzo Venditti brings animal magnetism and a velvety voice to the title role. Photographer: Fritz Curzon/OHP via Bloomberg

Bizet’s opera “The Pearl Fishers” (1863) is set in Ceylon in legendary times. Directors usually throw heaps of glitter and silk at it. Not Penny Woolcock.

In the filmmaker’s new production at English National Opera in London, she updates the story -- a classic love triangle involving heroic self-sacrifice -- to a destitute fishing village in modern Sri Lanka. It’s a world of ramshackle huts on stilts, chicken wire and corrugated iron roofs (sets by Dick Bird). It looks like something you often see on the news.

What you don’t see so often, except perhaps at ENO where directors with only limited experience are often hired, are all the mistakes of bad old-fashioned opera direction. You want chorus members trying to look like a busy crowd of locals while standing rooted in one spot? Tick. You want a vengeful mob with as much vengeance in it as a mouse squeak? Tick. You want the heroine looking ridiculous as she makes her entrance on an unintentionally noisy prop boat? Roll right up.

When combined with the overdecorated realism of the set, the hammy incompetence of the stagecraft looks even more fake. It takes experience to know how to handle a chorus. It takes musical insight to contrast a 19th-century sound world with contemporary images. Woolcock, directing only her second staged opera, displays less experience and insight than the cement fence posts littering her production.

Polished Tenor

The performances are passable, and in one case, very good. Tenor Alfie Boe sings with gorgeous polish and melting sweetness as Nadir the pearl fisher. Hanan Alattar, after a squally start, warms up in her later scenes as the forbidden virgin priestess with whom Nadir falls in love. Quinn Kelsey as the baritone antagonist has an impressively ringing upper register to compensate for his dearth of acting skills. Rory Macdonald keeps things lively, if not seductive, in the pit.

In her program note, Woolcock writes about colonialism, Third World poverty, climate change in Bangladesh and Bizet’s “intractable” writing for the “dehumanized” chorus. It’s fine to critique a piece of 19th-century Orientalism such as “The Pearl Fishers.” It’s just that a director has to love the work’s virtues -- its lyricism, romance and spectacle -- before picking at the faults. Some lessons in basic opera direction wouldn’t hurt either.

Rating: *1/2.

Carmen’s Contempt

There are no complaints about director Jonathan Munby’s stagecraft in his new staging of Bizet’s “Carmen” (1875) over at Opera Holland Park. In his period-costume production the action is clear and flows beautifully, the chorus members create an impression of individual lives without pulling focus from the plot, and the acting is detailed.

Young American mezzo Tara Venditti makes a terrific Carmen. Her voice, though not large, is smooth and warm while her flashes of sensuality and contempt are thoroughly convincing. Sean Ruane is a fine Don Jose, and Julia Sporsen displays a heavenly purity of sound as Micaela.

If it weren’t for Matthew Willis’s unfortunate conducting, which lacks detail, dramatic insight and pace, it would be a superb show. As it is, it’s still a good one.

Rating: ***.

Strange Cool

“Carmen’’ runs in tandem with Olivia Fuchs’s superb production of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande.’’ Fuchs produces a sense of symbolist mystery by placing the action among three large, white geometrical shapes -- a ring, a square, and a box with a platform in it (sets Yannis Thavoris) -- and she uses them inventively to suggest the locations of the action. It looks cool and hauntingly strange.

Fuchs also directs the cast, in late 19th-century period costume, to act with psychological realism. The effect realizes Debussy’s score beautifully, especially with Brad Cohen’s delicate work in the pit.

Anne Sophie Duprels sings with purity as Melisande, Palle Knudsen brims with energy as her lover Pelleas, and Alan Opie brings authority to the role of Melisande’s husband Golaud. Another Holland Park hit.

Rating: ****.

“The Pearl Fishers” is in repertory through July 8 at English National Opera. Information: or +44-871-911-0200.

“Carmen” is in repertory with “Pelleas et Melisande” until June 19 at Opera Holland Park. See or call +44-845-230-9769.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless
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