After an initial 18-performance run at Paris' Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) never saw the stage again until 1886. Though it has entered the repertoire since, it was only performed for the first time in 100 years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last year. It is this production, by British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, that LA Opera is currently presenting on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The production was created for English National Opera and it makes a fine and welcome case for Bizet's lesser known work getting exposure today.
|Alfredo Daza as Zurga, Nino Machaidze as Leïla and LA Opera Chorus|
For the most part, the work is presented as a lush curio that gives directors and designers license to delve into Asian exoticism, often overly glamourised and generally far removed from our time. But Woolcock's version is a brilliantly contemporised and inventive interpretation of its story - one that centres on the bonds of friendship, love and loyalty - and it comes with refreshing directness and realism. Woolcock's sharp cinematic eye is evident from the moment the dreamily atmospheric overture plays. The entire stage is a cross-section of a deep blue sea in which three divers, the pearl fishers, swim through in a sensationally choreographed aerialist display that unsurprisngly brought applause.
The setting (formerly Ceylon) is a little Sri Lankan village sitting vulnerably, as the circumstances are, at the edge of the water - poor, shanty-like and buzzing with its locals in spice-coloured costumes under a mostly inky sky (set designer Dick Bird, costumes by Kevin Pollard and lighting by Jen Schriever). The overall effect is masterful and adaptable in its scene changes. Of question, however, is the way how Woolcock turns Act 2's storm scene into a rogue tsunami reminiscent of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that would wipe out such a village. From there, projections of the disaster's aftermath mark scene changes (and they are lengthy) that are more detrimental in effect than being relevant on her otherwise insightful storytelling. On that front, Woolcock draws a wonderful picture of believable performances from her cast.
The story focuses on a friendship put to the test between Zurga and Nadir, who are both in love with the priestess Leila. She has sworn an oath of chastity as part of a religious ritual in order to protect the pearl divers, but weakens when Nadir’s arrival inflames her desires.
|Alfredo Daza as Zurga and Javier Camarena as Nadir|
Bizet's scoring is sensitive, mature and gorgeously threaded but it is the opera's duet between Zurga and Nadir in Act I, "Au fond du temple saint”, that is its most well-known part. An impressive-voiced pair, Javier Camarena (Nadir) and Alfredo Daza (Zurga) made the duet a poignant highlight as they explored their character's friendship and tension, first singing apart before coming together to join in song as comrades wounded by a hint of uncertainty in their encounter. Camarena displayed much to impress in both his role and house debut, his warm and glimmering tenor on show and power when needed. Daza's striking presence, handsomely dark-hued and resonant baritone perfectly matched the command he exhibited as leader. With it came the dramatic interpretation and an underlying suspicion he layered on his character, coming to a climactic highlight in Act 3's opening as Zurga see-saws from remorse to jealousy.
It's the role of Leïla that has the most taxing music and soprano Nino Machaidze, a regular and much-loved artist at LA Opera, made it divine. Machaidze brought to Leïla a beautifully poised demeanour and a devastatingly well-calibrated and touching performance as a 21st century woman sacrificing her freedom under religious demands in a male-dominated society. In Machaidze's genuinely felt rendition, sung with both spoonfuls of purity and magnetic resolve, Leïla has never been so relevantly portrayed.
|Nino Machaidze as Leïla|
Big-brewing bass baritone Nicholas Brownlee gave a dignified performance as Nourabad, the humble high priest of Brahma. The chorus of fishermen, townsfolk, priests and priestesses didn't always harmonise to the excellent standards that audiences are accustomed to at LA Opera, but they still did a fine job, more so the ladies, and they certainly detailed their acting like they knew what's required of them for a Hollywood screen test.
For this matinee performance, Plácido Domingo took the baton up after only having taken the title role of Nabucco by the horns in the previous evening's opening night. There seems no stopping this maestro's tireless pursuits. Musically, Domingo issued the score with superbly balanced weight and energetic thrust in company with precision playing from the LA Opera Orchestra.
If The Pearl Fishers isn't amongst one of your favourite operas, this Penny Woolcock production, so gorgeously realised and sung, will likely change that.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 28th October.
Production photos: Ken Howard