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.