By Truman C. Wang
Photo credit: Ken Howard / L.A. Opera
Last night, the curtain went up on LA Opera’s beauteous Pearl Fishers to a collective audible gasp from the audience. An underwater vista of divers undulating to the sweet strains of the overture fills the entire stage – a fleeting picture that dissipates as quickly as it appears, never to be seen again, like a perfumed dream. It is the ingenious brainchild of director Penny Woolcok and scenery designer Dick Bird, first seen in 2016 at the Met and English National Opera before traveling to L.A. this month.
In my thirty-odd years of attending opera, I have witnessed and lamented the dumbing-down trend in ‘concept’ productions at the expense of truthful storytelling. This “Pearl Fishers” is unapologetically traditional, featuring an enchanting mise-en-scène populated with real divers, fishermen, ocean waves and exotic Oriental colors on stage, as well as real pearls in the cast and orchestra.
We are not talking about raw ocean pearls here, but fine cultured Mikimoto pearls full of shine and luster. Soprano Nino Machaidze sings sweetly and poignantly as the virgin priestess Leila, trapped in a love triangle. As her two suitors, tenor Javier Camarena’s Nadir and baritone Alfredo Daza’s Zurga sing their famous Act I duet to great effects. Camarena delivers Nadir’s aria "Je crois entendre encore" with elegance and poetry. Nicholas Brownlee brings his imposing bass-baritone to the role of the fishermen leader Nourabad.
Fine as the cast may be, the conducting of Plácido Domingo is the true ‘pearl in the crown’. Maestro Domingo molds Bizet’s fetching melodies con amore and seems to breathe as one with the singers. The results are perfectly-coordinated ensembles and winning orchestral contributions – the sensuous cellos and horn in the Leila-Nadir duet, radiant woodwinds and harp in the friendship duet, to name only a few. (A side note, Mr. Domingo sang the Pearl Fishers duet in an April concert on the same stage, and will conduct at Bayreuth in 2018.)
I would be remiss not to mention the superb L.A. Opera Chorus, who not only look great in Kevin Pollard’s gleaming colorful costumes, but sing the fishermen lustily and memorably in the opera’s many choral numbers.
There are three more performances on 10/22 (conducted by Domingo) and 10/25, 10/28 (conducted by Grant Gershon).
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.