The reviews were only lukewarm, but we couldn't see why. We enjoyed it hugely, even though both Hanan Alattar (who sang Leila, the virgin priestess) and Alfie Boe (who sang Nadir, the lover) were suffering from throat infections (we couldn't really tell).
The plot is a nonsense, culminating in an awful moment when Zurga the village chief, who discovers that leila loves not him but his bosom buddy Nadir, sets fire to the village (full of sleeping children) so that the lovers can escape execution for breaking her vow of veiled chastity. A morally deeply troubling notion.
The set was fantastic: a contemporary Asian beachfront village on stilts in Act 1, a temple surrounded by concrete posts and barbed wire (standing in for the high cliffs of the libretto) in Act 2, another part of the village put together from oil drums and rubbish in Act 3. Getting the chorus on and off in these somewhat cramped spaces was challenging, but reasonably well-handled and worth it for the initial visual impact.
Updating the Oriental exoticism of the original to the ramshackle, barely sustainable community of today, somewhere in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, always in danger of inundation in an era of climate change, seemed to make sense.
Quinn Kelsey, who played Zurga, is a big feller, but had a musically and dramatically compelling Act 2 confrontation with Leila which was almost as powerful as the famous Act 2 duet for Zurga and Nadir: that has a beautiful tune, which the Leila-Zurga exchanges didn't have. But the duet as customarily sung (and as sung here) was not as Bizet wrote it apparently: the big tune in his version made only one appearance and its reprise was a modern modification. Penny Woolcock, the director, likened the original to a Teutonic drinking song and said, although they'd otherwise tried to stick to the original, they felt the better-known version of the duet was preferable. My new Penguin Guide to Opera is however very rude about the popular version, reckoning it makes no dramatic sense.
Perhaps the contemporary updating was as patronising in its way as the 19th century original (there were even a couple of camera-toting western tourists in Act 1). But it seemed to work.