Review: LA Opera’s Production of The Pearl Fishers Is a Real Gem

Nicholas Brownlee and Nino Machaidze in LA Opera’s Production of The Pearl Fishers (Ken Howard)

Nicholas Brownlee and Nino Machaidze in LA Opera’s Production of The Pearl Fishers (Ken Howard)

Last month, Los Angeles Opera began their 2017-2018 season with the opera “warhorse” Carmen by French composer Georges Bizet, which is considered his best and last work, starring Cuban-Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez. As their second production, LA Opera chose an earlier work by Bizet, The Pearl Fishers, starring two Mexican opera singers, tenor Javier Camarena (Nadir) and baritone Alfredo Daza (Zurga) along with Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze (Leila).

Set in a seaside village on the island of Ceylon (currently Sri Lanka), the storyline revolves around the longtime friendship between Nadir and Zurga, which was severely severed years before when they both fell in love with the beautiful Leila, a devotee of the Hindu god Brahma.

Before all the drama begins, a phenomenal visual introduction with a piano solo put forth the title of and partial context of the opera, as dancers hung by invisible wires floating over the stage mimicking submerging divers as they reach for pearls at the bottom of the ocean. Created by British director Penny Woolcock with help from Dick Bird (scenery), Kevin Pollard (costumes), Jen Schriever (lighting), 59 Productions (projections) and Andrew Dawson (movement director), the simple yet imaginative scene was a type of Cirque du Soleil imagery that wowed everyone.

As the scrim curtain lifted, the audience was transported to a seaside town getting ready to receive a new virgin priestess that will pray at the temple Brahma for the safety of the pearl fishermen. Posing as the villagers, the LA Opera chorus, under the direction of maestro Grant Gershon, sang a lot of wonderful melodies with that exceptional cohesiveness and power that they bring to every production.

The tireless maestro Placido Domingo – who is singing the lead in Nabucco, the third production by the company which runs concurrently with The Pearl Fishers – conducted the LA Opera Orchestra with the precision and detail that he brings to his singing, a phenomenal feat at age 76.

As the political savvy Zurga, Daza possessed not only an incredibly rich and powerful voice, but his acting in this role was remarkable as he is torn between betrayal, as he sees it, and the power of love to forgive and find redemption. The famous duet in the first act with Camarena, “Au fond du temple saint,” was astounding in its beauty, sincerity and power as both men vow not to let anything get between their friendship again. 

For the past six years I have been following the career of Camarena with great interest as he is considered one of the great opera singers of his generation. He has graced the stage of almost every major opera company in the world to great reviews, so I was excited to finally be able to enjoy his artistry live. I was not disappointed. His stunning rendition of the aria “Je crois entendre encore” was full of beautifully projected notes and a gorgeous timbre to his voice. 

In the role of the virgin priestess Leila, Machaidze possesses the physical beauty to easily portray this role, but it was her vocal power and voice control that made the most impression. Her coloratura precision in the aria “Me voilà seule dans la nuit” was out of this world, and her high notes were pure and crystalline.

The young bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee was outstanding both in his acting and in projecting a menacing, thunderous voice into the audience as the treacherous and menacing Nourabad, high priest of Brahma. 

Even though this early work of Bizet was panned for many years after his death, it has found itself as part of the repertoire of many important opera houses around the world, such as this co-production of the Metropolitan Opera House (MET) of NYC with the English National Opera. Judging from the enthusiastic and loud standing ovation from the capacity crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, this production of The Pearl Fishers has turned out to be a real jewel for LA Opera.

The Pearl Fishers runs Wednesday, Oct. 25, and Saturday, Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit laopera.org/season/1718-Season/pearlfishers.

Humberto Capiro is a Contributing Writer for Living Out Loud - LA, covering lifestyle and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter: @HumbertoCapiro

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