The Pearl Fishers, Le Nozze de Figaro

English National Opera takes Bizet into a disaster zone, but two tasty Figaros offer a feast for Mozart lovers

Bizet wrote Les Pêcheurs de Perles in his mid-20s, nearly a decade before his masterpiece, Carmen. He may have thought he had created an operatic bouillabaisse hot with eastern delight and heady religiosity, spiced up with a love triangle and good tunes. Romantic orientalism, awkwardly outmoded today, was the rage in 1860s Paris and the young Frenchman yielded, like so many fellow artists, to its sexy allure. Jean-Léon Gérôme's Le Muezzin (1865), which sold at Sotheby's last week, gives the flavour.

But Bizet hadn't reckoned with English National Opera's updated staging. Had he but known it, his slight, early work, which has generous melodic charm but threatens to collapse if called a masterpiece, was a Cassandrine portent of 21st-century climate change and the rising of sea-levels and of religious fundamentalism. Well, blow me.

Penny Woolcock, best known for her film and documentary work but who directed a successful Doctor Atomic for ENO, has drawn parallels with the destruction of villages in the far east. A poetic, beautifully achieved "underwater" sequence at the start, in which three acrobats twirl in an aquatic wonderland, suggested a more delicate approach than proved the case.

After this prelude, barbed-wire realism takes over. The setting is a seashore shanty town, visually familiar from news footage of recent tsunamis. The iconography, with many a mawkish muddle, is more or less south Indian. Flimsy shacks, propped one against another, await the next great tidal wave, which will return them to the flotsam and jetsam of which they are made. Dick Bird's sets, lit by Jennifer Schriever, often create magical stage pictures with billowing sea, fairy-lights and a creakily rocking barque. A canvas tent, which swoops encompassingly like a bird of prey, suggests both natural disaster and insurgent encampment.

This swarm of ideas is overbearingly attached to the fragile construct that is Bizet's opera. The plot concerns two men, Zurga and Nadir, whose friendship, displayed in a famous duet but hardly explored beyond that, comes to grief over the same girl, Leila. She forsakes love to become a priestess. In her unholy anguish, soprano Hanan Alattar seemed so nervous as to lose breath control but matters improved and her tightness of tone eased.

Zurga, a strong, belligerent baritone role that suited the burly Quinn Kelsey, is the village headman. Nadir, the pearl-fisher tenor love interest, has left the community but fate draws him back. Leila glimpses him from under her sacred veil at the moment she's taking her vow. Who could resist the angelic-voiced Alfie Boe in black wig and medallion? Not Leila. It all turns out badly.

So, alas, does this production, which bowls downhill as the evening proceeds, chiefly because it tries too hard to make meaning out of feeling. That said, it's a positive winner compared with ENO's Tosca, which floored me a month ago. Once again, the translation plods, though luckily few of the words were audible. You could almost imagine it was being sung in French until "meet", in a not so neat feat, rhymed with something along the lines of "I was led here by my feet".

The rousing choruses, lustily sung, have a four-square quality and the melodies offer a safe, if dull musical landing. This was never the fault of the persuasive conductor, Rory Macdonald, who conjured sensuous colours from the orchestra, especially the prominent, voluptuous harp and muezzin-like oboe. ENO's new poet-in-residence, Ian McMillan, has written a witty take on the opera called "The Perch Fishers", with not a petrol bomb or rusty tin can in sight. Good for him.

Two Marriage of Figaros, or Marriages of Figaro, in a week is the kind of suffering I can endure. Covent Garden has revived David McVicar's elegant staging, updated to a French chateau in 1830. Erwin Schrott, looking leaner and rather more lived in (he has since married the full-on Russian diva Anna Netrebko, which may be connected), returns as a sharp, quick-witted Figaro. If the action has become more over-egged, with the Countess chasing Cherubino a little too freshly, and much running around where stillness is required, it is never less than thoughtful. Mariusz Kwiecien's excellently sung Count, Annette Dasch's Countess and Eri Nakamura as Susanna led a high-quality cast.

The revival's triumph, not unexpectedly, is Sir Colin Davis, who brings a wise combination of delicacy, humour, heart, head and munificence to the score, and wins glorious playing from the orchestra. In practice, this means vigilant attention to dynamics, a seemingly effortless ebb and flow between recitative and aria, the merest, gossamer pressure on a phrase or accent to give shape and transparency. Sir Colin first conducted Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden in 1965. He knows how it goes.

Garsington Opera launched its final season in its Oxfordshire home, before moving next year to Wormsley, home of the Getty family, with the opera that launched the enterprise 21 years ago: Figaro. This was a revival of John Cox's enchanting 2005 staging, with a fine young cast and a small, accomplished orchestra, the sound brightened with imaginative and prominent fortepiano-led continuo.

Douglas Boyd, a top oboist as well as a conductor, brought a player's sensibility to instrumental detail and chose unrushed, sympathetic tempi in a fresh interpretation that will deepen. James Oldfield's quizzical and unshowy Figaro has promise in a cast headed by Sophie Bevan as a perky Susanna, Anna Grevelius touching and funny as Cherubino and Grant Doyle as a reliable, attractive Count.

It was fascinating to compare, 48 hours apart, the ROH's deluxe staging and larger-scale performance with Garsington's robust intimacy and divine garden setting. Yet the chief revelation was not differing aspects of interpretation but the inexhaustible treasures of Mozart's flickering, glittering score, which leave quite enough over for the next production, and the production after that.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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