Cher Public

Diver gent

Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles has been knocking steadily at the door of the standard repertoire now in this country for quite some time. From the 1960’s onward there have been a precious few productions pop up here and there but none that really caught fire for a number of reasons. 

The score, though bursting with melody and that particular brand of French exoticism, is a difficult one to pull off. A formidable number of tempo changes and orchestral effects require a conductor of almost preternatural vigilance. The tenor and soprano roles offer an array of daunting vocal challenges that mainly showcase the delicacy of the vocal line and focus the voice in the upper quadrant. So not necessarily roles you can blow your way through on a healthy mezzo-forte and come out a hero(oine).

Then you need a solid and able chorus well versed (or at least appearing to be) in the French style. This mostly translates to a solid bunch of mezzos and a tenor section with the ability to sing piano on an E natural and above.

Of course there’s always the plot to consider. It’s completely ridiculous but that’s your director’s problem now, isn’t it? Probably one of the reasons San Diego Opera invited fashion’s fluorescent bad girl, Zandra Rhodes, to throw a lot of color on it in 2004 hoping for the best. To prove how well this cheap and cheerful production worked would be to list the more than half dozen companies that borrowed it since including San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, and the New York City Opera.

Even more popular now, thanks to Live in HD broadcasts and and a DVD release, is the production that Penny Woolcock produced for the English National Opera in 2014 then remounted at the Metropolitan Opera the following year. Happy are we that it found its way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night with most of its stage illusions intact and ready to seduce a very willing audience at LA Opera. We occidentals call it The Pearl Fishers.

Visually and musically there’s so much magic happening here it’s almost hard to recount. Ms. Woolcock’s staging brings many pleasures starting with its modern setting in a shanty town perched on stilts over the ocean that brings the villagers their livelihood and threatens their doom. Lights twinkle in a distant, forced perspective, village while magnificent cloud scapes and nighttime skies, cunningly produced by video artists 59 Productions provide a backdrop.

Even harder to recount is the actual story of the opera which I shan’t even attempt except to say that it’s always a bad idea to foster a crush on our best buddy’s girl and doubly so if she’s in a holy order. So Ms. Woolcock and her production team of Set Designer Dick Bird and Costume Designer Kevin Pollard should be commended for not only resuscitating this French parfumerie but giving it a setting of equal parts storybook and grit.

I especially enjoyed the prompter’s box disguised as a 40-gallon barrel of oil. Since most of us out here in La La Land have been baptised by Disney we don’t want too much reality mixed in with our fairy tales.

The singing was on an especially high level last night, after a fashion that is, as it seemed almost everyone, soloists included, needed a little time to get their sea legs under them. The LA Opera Chorus started out with some major mush mouth in their opening number that I’m going to attribute to a chaotic staging.

By the arrival of the Brahman Priestess Leila, and the triple forte prayers to Brahma that accompany her, they were firing vocal salvos over the bow and into the audience. They remained in top form for the remainder of the night and in an opera with a choral presence this large they nearly walked away with the evening’s laurels.

Zurga, the head of the fishing community, was played by Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza, who is reunited in the opera’s opening moments with his best friend (and tenor duet partner), Nadir, played by Javier Camarena. So everyone who’s come to hear the famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” (which is essentially everyone who bought a ticket) gets their money’s worth in the first 15 minutes.

Mr. Daza’s first utterances found him a with a diagnosable case of the vocal woolies. Most unfortunate then that the staging for the big duet starts off with both men at nearly opposite sides of the set and only brings them together at the reprise. Given a chance to tune next to his partner Mr. Daza was able to focus his tone to far better effect. He gained in vocal stature and strength as the evening progressed delivering a crushing Act III rumination,”L’orage est calmé” to the audience’s collective rapture.

Mr. Camarena needed no such prep time and arrived with his vocal arsenal replete with all the poise and refinement the role requires. His “Je crois entendre encore” was a lesson in how to float a voix-mixte above the staff and he never cheated any of the big breathed phrases. In spite of the fact that his voice is built more for point than passion he managed some very exciting fortes at the finales and in the duet with Leila in Act II.

For local favorite Nino Machaidze this was not her first trip to Ceylon and it showed although she too made tentative starts. She stepped gingerly through the filigree of the “O Dieu Brahma” (I read it called the French Casta diva” somewhere) and then tiptoed through her Act II “Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre” until she came to the final pages and delivered a cadenza of such brilliance and elegance all was forgiven.

From that point forward, through the love duet with Nadir and later in that last act with Zuniga pleading for her lover’s life, Ms. Machaidze unleashed a steady stream of shimmering soprano tone. After her full-blooded Mimi of last season I was hoping she might move away from leggiero roles but that’s probably why she doesn’t ask my advice.

Mention should also be made of the vocally and physically imposing Nicholas Brownlee as the HIgh Priest Nourabad. Even from the top of the stage during the loudest ensembles you could hear him clearly. He’s not even 30 yet and I can only imagine what’s before him.

The LA Opera Orchestra was led by a former Nadir in the personage of our General Director Placido Domingo. Never mind that it’s an opera he hasn’t performed in since 1964. Mr. Domingo is I think best as an accompanist and my guess is that singers appreciate having him in the pit. The orchestra played with their usual brilliant tone and the string tone was particularly seductive when it needed to be.

Bizet’s orchestrations are a constant surprise to the ear and although the sweep of the music was there I also felt a lack of detail was evident at times. Still the ensemble that leads to the finale of Act II built to a massive climax, lay on the mountains of chorus, the storm lighting and the projections, and it literally brought down the house. I had goose-flesh.

Ms. Woolcock utilizes the sets of Dick Bird adroitly. They prove especially adaptable as the evening progresses both allowing varied playing spaces for the actors and the execution of some marvelous technical effects.

Small details from the Met production are missing but not missed: the henna tattoos, the reappearance of the diver during Leila’s aria, the masks of Zurga during the opening political rally. Some things I enjoyed so much more live. The projection of Leila during the tenor/baritone duet was magic and the fisherman in their boat in Act II as background.

The costumes of Kevin Pollard flaunt rich, bright colors and the chorus looked fabulous. Ms. Machaidze with her naturally black hair and almond eyes was a storybook princess draped in bright yellows and oranges whilst making her entrance on a skiff with an outboard motor. On the other hand, Mr. Camarena’s ill-fitting trousers need immediate attention.

Jen Schriever’s lighting plot was especially evocative and she obviously worked hand in glove with 59 Productions to integrate their stupendous contributions as well.

LA Opera plays The Pearl Fishers with one intermission combining act II & III and for an audience that came to hear one hit tune I’m happy to say that everyone stayed to the end. Five performances remain and it’s a magical production with a stellar vocal line up that certainly won’t be topped anytime soon.

  • Yige Li

    I have a question regarding the radio broadcast of LA Opera. Here is Chicago, performances are broadcasted on the opening night then being rebroadcasted (not always the same one, “the best pick” I guess) after the season as part of the WFMT network American Opera Series. I know LA Opera is also part of that Series, just wondering if they also have local broadcast during the season. Sorry to ask this bit off-topic question here. It’s hard to find information on KUSC’s website.

    • Camille

      Yes they do, or DID. I remember listening to a Fidelio in 2007. Thinking it was opening night but not 100% sure anymore.

      That was then and since it’s now, maybe someone else will chime in with the current state of the radio there.

  • fletcher

    Well, Mr Mack, I’m glad you enjoyed your evening -- I honestly feel like we saw two very different shows. My section (founder’s circle -- my last year of $30 seats!) had plenty of defections, especially in the second pause. Camarena did sound very good, even if he missed a couple of notes in the impossible “Je crois entendre”, and Daza, after a very rough start, warmed up and had some really great moments in Act III -- but Machaidze was a real catastrophe. As she started in with those rising proclamations of “Je le jour”, I thought there had to be some mistake -- maybe she’s ill, or maybe she’s being partially strangled by her veil, or maybe she’s actually 71, or maybe it’s actually Meryl Streep in a viral marketing campaign for FFJ on Amazon Prime. I found myself wincing throughout the evening: “O Dieu Brahma” was truly painful, and when she managed in Act II to tame that miserable wobble, she was consistently flat. The coloratura was fudged; the French was blurred and unintelligible (no one cares, I guess; Camarena, fwiw, has very good French). And Domingo was no help in the pit; he spent a lot of time staring at the score and the whole thing came off slack, in a score that requires the opposite. I was glad when the evening was over.

    I disagree about the production, too, which I had high hopes for, but found very lame; the bleachers, while practical for the chorus, made movement awkward, and Zurga and Nadir reuniting over a 30′ gulf was particularly ineffective. Zurga’s office took forever to set up and take down, all for a short scene, and wasn’t even that interesting. The divers were cool, I guess, but acrobats on wires are nothing new (and also oysters are usually on the ocean floor, which no one went all the way down to? Maybe that’s why they’re all poor, since they’re not very good at finding pearls). Some of the details were weird too -- you’re right that they didn’t use the Zurga masks but they did pass them out little printed faces to the chorus and everyone just sort of dumbly held them. What was Zurga watching on the CCTV? Why did Leïla just wait glumly on her raft when the guards came for her? Why was poor Nick Brownlee assigned an orange toga?

    So maybe I was in a bad mood, or hadn’t had enough wine or weed, but I found it one of the worst nights I’ve had at the Dot that I can remember (Susan Graham looked shell-shocked in the lobby). And I say that after seeing a horrendous Carmen last weekend. Not holding on to much hope for Nabucco either, with Domingo back on stage, but at least we have Christie conducting Purcell and Charpentier and Dutoit leading L’heure espagnole at the Phil next month.

    • Camille

      Hi fletcherino!! You will be lucky to hear Dutoit conducting L’heure espagnole, as he is 81 and won’t be around forever. And I say that as I had the rare pleasure of hearing him conduct La vida breve about 15 to 20 years ago and he was a dynamic force that really brought to life this work, too infrequently given. A performance I’ve never forgotten.

      For the rest, well, that’s a night at the opera these days!! I like your phrase about FFJ and viral marketing, haha.

    • aulus agerius

      I expect to hear Dutoit conduct BSO Berlioz Faust later this month. Depends on a rush ticket. I’m hoping it’s as good as that wild Markevitch performance on YT which reminds of the Met Klobucar Troyens.

      • fletcher

        Dutoit doesn’t have a lot in common with Markevitch, for better or worse, and is rather more punctilious, at least on record. He also got a pretty bad notice for a Berlioz Requiem this spring in San Francisco (I wasn’t there … I’ve only heard him once, in a mild-mannered but beautiful Saint-Saëns 3 at LA Phil -- the organ was very appropriately calibrated. Several years later Dudamel let the organist loose and nearly blew the roof off the place.)

        • fantasia2000

          I was there for Dutoit’s Berlioz Requiem at SF Symphony, and yes, unfortunately it was indeed a ho-hum affair, especially since the previous night I saw an emotionally charged and completely heartbreaking Berkeley symphony performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13 with Denis Sedov, conducted by Christian Reif!

      • JR

        Kubelik

    • Nelly della Vittoria

      Zurga and Nadir reunite over a 30-foot gulf? Goodness, I’d forgotten that.

      Pity it was such a bad night! There’s no making this odd piece work without an all-round excellent cast.

    • chichichiman

      I agree with Fletcher re the singing and with Patrick re the production. To my eyes, Nino is alluring, but to my ears, she sounds like a very old woman with sloppy musicianship. I’m a sucker for weird loud voices, but not for Leila. My friend turned to me at the end of the first act and asked, “That’s a goddess?” I wish LA would find a new home favorite to build productions around. The men were fine, though. Especially Brownlee.

      I enjoyed the sets and much of the production. It’s more lavish and more detailed than we usually get in LA and felt atmospheric. But the staging has too many bizarre moments (mentioned by Fletcher already) and felt unfinished.

      Anyway, I’m not a fan of this opera. If we have to be subjected to implausible French Orientalism, why not something truly rare like L’Africaine?

      • Camille

        Dear Mr Chichichiman —
        Thank you so much for having mentioned one of my fetish operas, L’africaine. It could be viable, if ONLY--but it would take the resources of a big house and a thorough understanding of grand opera style and someone who could conduct Meyerbeer with intelligence, sympathy and understanding. At least there is that magnificent souvenir with Verrett Domingo and Swenson from San Francisco, which reminds me, I’m always intending to purchase it, and still haven’t.

        Hope you won’t entirely give up on this particular genre even if it wasn’t the greatest of theatrical experiences.

        • grimoaldo2

          Well Camille “L’Africaine” in its original version as “Vasco da Gama” is enjoying something of a renaissance in Europe. It was performed in Venice with the great Gregory Kunde in 2013, the new critical edition was given in performances in Chemnitz in 2014 and I was so grateful and happy to see “Vasco da Gama” in the tremendous production in Berlin in 2015 with Alagna and Sophie Koch. A new production of “Vasco da Gama” will be given in Frankfurt with Michael Spyres in the title role next year --
          http://www.oper-frankfurt.de/en/season-calendar/l-africaine-vasco-da-gama/?id_datum=1043
          I have just booked my ticket, airfare, hotel, to see “Le Prophète” in the Meyerbeer cycle at the Deutsche Oper Berlin with Kunde and Clémentine Margaine in the premiere of the new production by Oliver Py on 26 November.
          https://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/en_EN/calendar/production/le-prophete.1115921
          I am very excited. I am going to Brexitland, aka the UK, first to visit dearly loved ones there. It is very appropriate that Berlin, where Meyerbeer was official court composer to the Prussian monarchy and lauded and prized as a great genius, then cast into oblivion by Wagner’s scurrilous anti-Semitic attacks on him and the Nazis, should be mounting this cycle of productions of his major works.
          Can’t wait!

          • grimoaldo2

            Video about the critical edition of “Vasco da Gama” and the Berlin production
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MVsUL9uUys

          • Camille

            Oh bully for you and how wonderful!! You MUST file a complete report on the Prophète! I only know it from an occasional hearing on Sirius and must say there was some serious singing going on in it.

            Yes, I certainly recall your going to hear Alagna in that one, it was such a big deal. I hope these two soloists, Kunde and Margaine, will be up to the demands of this other one now. And most of all, very happy to hear of the wonderful Michael Spyres singing this as well. When will he ever sing here again! It is great to know that Meyerbeer is being honored as one of their own, and a great orchestral innovator and popular success for a good century, before the horrors began.

            Bon voyage and a very happy landing to you, grimoaldo, cavaliere fedele!

            • grimoaldo2

              Thanks for your kind wishes Camille!
              Anyone curious about ” Le prophète” could have a look at the wikipedia article --
              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_proph%C3%A8te
              I wrote more than half of the article, sort of proud of that,

    • Daniel Swick

      I listened to “Dieu Brahma” last night for the first time as sung by both Maliponte (wonderful warm sound and excellent french) and Doria (classic, tart, and very stylish) and thought it a rather fiendish aria…so much filligree work that can’t be easy to keep in tune (I actually think Casta Diva is more straight forward in that regard) I can imagine that Nino did not have a good time of it. But as I’ve said many times, Machaidze’s success is a mystery to me.

      • fletcher

        I’ve mostly listened to Micheau’s for Dervaux and sometimes Alarie for Fournet, but I’ll give those two a listen. I’m not trying to be cruel to Machaidze, whose performances have been mostly inoffensive to me in the past; but this was some stunningly bad singing, so some of the good reviews (here, Bachtrack, LA Times) are baffling to me. I almost wrote something long-ish a bit back about my frustration in having never seen a spectacularly awful operatic performance but also never having seen a genuinely great performance (with the exception of maybe Mattila’s Kostelnicka in SF) but that situation seems to have resolved itself.

        • Camille

          You were not joking with the FFJ reference. This is three years ago:

          https://youtube.com/watch?v=r7IK5TIVEQ4

          Mamma mia, che desastre!

          • fletcher

            Camille, I think this sounds BETTER than I heard on Saturday, if you can believe that’s possible.

            • Camille

              You poor thing!!! I’d be all pushed out of shape had I been forced to listen to an evening of that. Is it ALL about looks anymore???? Can’t they shove someone halfway decent into a sari who has a beautiful voice??

              Javier Camarena left a couple notes out of his cavatine you said?? Or missed them?? Did he sing the unwritten C at the end (supposing they did it in key?)

              Well, at least Lyudmila is a lotta fun being bad as Abigaille. And you never know with Abuelo, what he’ll do. So good luck on the next round. And good luck with Dutoit--guess he has gotten too old now.

            • fletcher

              He didn’t miss the notes as much as ducked them when he knew it wasn’t going to work -- that really tricky short A in the first phrase of the second verse (either “encore” or “divin”, can’t recall which line) and then final high B was sort of skirted around -- nothing terrible, really, and it didn’t interrupt the spellbinding effect of the aria. I was told he sounded much better in rehearsal. Still gorgeous singing.

            • Camille

              Okay gotcha.
              Merci.

              Dont forget about the Arte broadcast of Don Carlos.

            • Daniel Swick
            • Camille

              Eh bien, you most certainly called this one correctly, for it is balm to hear a real expert negotiate this rather unnecessarily fussy and elaborate, if somewhat gratifying nonsense.
              How I rue that one performance of Lucia I lost of hers, sometime in the last millennium, and somewhere in a field on Staten Island, I think it was.

              Ms. Fuchs is admirable and pretty and young and certainly preferable to the water tortures pauvre fletcher underwent, but still not in the same league as Mme Massis. Salut à la France!

            • Daniel Swick

              No, she lacks Massis’ élan, indeed, but I find her voice quite glamorous. I don’t really think she’s a coloratura. She tries, but the very top isn’t secure enough to really delight in alt. Speaking of Musetta (we were at one point, no?) she is genuinely wonderful in this https://youtu.be/GCH5fV8Fqro

            • Camille

              hahaha! I’d love to see Susanna Philips try this choreography!! Set the poms poms down girl.

              yes, not only the slooooooooowest tempo for the Valzer, but a much heavier voice than is usual and better suited to the Mimì.

              You know, I’ve heard her name before but never heard her nor do I know where she usually sings. A trip to operabase is at hand and thank you for the illustration!

            • Daniel Swick

              You know, now that I’m really listening I find her a little lacking in this…I remember her sounding better when listening last night (I may have taken too much herbal supplementation…) And what the hell is the conductor up to with his rushing every high note?! Weird.

            • Camille

              Be careful of too much herbal supplementation! Here is one I found which if not exactly glamorous is at least very in sync with the style:

              https://youtube.com/watch?v=z9iafQ-S8tE

              And yes, impressions change and constantly evolve or it is so more now to me than once it was. I don’t know quite the reason why.

            • Daniel Swick

              I ADORE Henry Legay…eleganza! I encountered this recording during my investigation of the aria. I like it very much, although I prefer Doria for the tartness of her timbre…sorta like Mesplé but with more juice.
              I will have to see what Henry does with his big air.

            • Daniel Swick
            • Nelly della Vittoria

              I mean, they don’t even wear saris, either, as witness the terrible Parma TV clip you linked us to!

              Ugh, also, what the hell is “blanche Shiva, reine à la chevelure blonde”? Man, I forget how terrible this opera really is, sometimes, for all the pretty tunes.

            • Camille

              And here I thought Shiva was a MAN god!! Wait, wait, I have to go check…………..

              Ah yes ma’am, he sure ’nuff is…
              https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva

              It’s a long way from Ceylon to Paris and something must have gotten Lost in Translation along the way……

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              It’s a tiny bit less dumb than Albert Roussel’s Padmavati but only a tiny bit.

            • Camille

              Oh tell us about Padmavati, Nelly, please!!!

              Yeah I know I could go to my friend Mr Google but I’d much rather have you recount the story for us.

              There’s something I like a LOT by him but its name escapes me at the moment. Scheiß

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              Ohhhh you know… Tenor and Mezzo are married Hindu royals of Rajasthan; Baritone is the covetous Muslim emperor from wicked Delhi; Baritone sees Mezzo amid moonlight, dancers and maidens flinging jasmines about (cue ballet interlude), says, “This mezzo I must have!”; threatens to overrun Tenor’s kingdom unless latter should give up to him his wife; usual betrayals by some wheedling underling ensue, and at length a war; queen enters crypt, prays with a weird cultish vigour; king shows up and says, “All is lost! Would you mind sashaying over to the emperor with kisses after all?” but queen reminds him this is immoral (“Oh, right”) and stabs ‘im mercifully dead; everyone prays with weird cultish vigour redoubled; gods and goddesses show up and the librettist calls them names (“Serpentine Dourga”) and they all exécutent une “danse onduleuse” and then grab unfortunate queenie by the ankle and carry her off to hell.

            • Camille

              Brava Diva Nelly! Raconteuse extraordinaire!!!
              So much better than Mr Google.

              Merci et GRAND MERCI!

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              I feel like this might be an appropriate time to clarify that in real life I’m a raconteur, not raconteuse, but as it’s pas une question de fach and no kingdoms hang in the balance, any old inflection for adjectives will do!

            • Camille

              Doesnt matter which team you play on around these parts, ma belle Nell, and I kinda sorta figured that any old way.

              I just love your story and wish you’d do more of them!

              How about Samson et Dalila for starters?? I love Rita. She honks louder than an elephant!

              merci autre fois!!

  • Dame Kenneth

    It’s interesting to read the Domingo had sung Nadir. Seems so unlikely given the high tessitura and his tone being so unlike what one expects (or wants necessarily) in French opera. Of course, this would have been super early for him.

    • La Cieca

      It was not a high point of his career.

      • PATRICK MACK

        Vocally it probably was the highest.
        It was in Tel Aviv and he was 23.

        • Camille

          In Hebrew, too?

          • PATRICK MACK

            He recorded it much later with Giulini and the LA Phil on a recital disc for DG. Has to be heard to be believed. He muscles his way through it like a bull in the lobby of the Georges V. Hysterical.

            • Camille

              That you should apply the word “bull” is both interesting and telling to me, as that is the image which is always conjured up in my heated imaginings when I listen to a lot of his earlier epoch “lyrical”
              singing. Being strong as an ox, or bull, is a GOOD thing in opera, that is, most of the time. Some of the time, and in French lyrical
              Operas, it is not. Yes, I’m bet Maestro Giulini just kept his baton waving whilst “This, too, shall pass” wandered through his mind.
              Tio Pláci just had such an insatiable hunger for everything. One wonders what drove him to it; what was at the root of it all? Jealousy of Lucky Luciano’s fabulous high Cs? I surely don’t know and wonder if the truth will ever out?

            • fletcher
            • Camille

              Really Nicht zu schlecht here! I’ve heard much worse and he sang the unnecessary C.

              But now let’s listen to le maître!

              https://youtube.com/watch?v=5MjnIcxCz8c

              As Carly Simon was wont to intone “Nobody does it better--nobody does it HALF as good as you--Baby, Bay-BEE—you’re the best!”

            • fletcher

              Hate to say it but I really prefer Gedda here. Vanzo and Simoneau are lovely, as is Legay for Cluytens, though a little less subtle.

            • Camille

              Oh bother, don’t hate to say anything you truly feel and that is fine with me as I absolutely adore him, one of a very, very few in my singer pantheon. Pity, I never had any chance to hear him live.

              fletcher, I am trying to find a book somewhere in my library about Les Pêcheurs, which may very well interest you — and I have found everything BUT that one — so I will get back to you when I do. I KNOW it’s here somewhere, buried.