“The Pearl Fishers” is a Hauntingly Beautiful Opera

Nino Machaidze (Leïla), Javier Camarena (Nadir) and Alfredo Daza (Zurga) in LA Opera's 2017 production of "The Pearl Fishers." Photo credit: Ken Howard

The Pearl Fishers (by librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré) is composer Georges Bizet’s lesser-known work, compared to Carmen, which was written a decade later, and was coincidentally the last LA Opera production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Side by side, the two operas are commercially no match for each other, sharing a myriad more differences than commonalities. Unlike Carmen, The Pearl Fishers has been hamstrung by several obstacles, since debuting to a tepid reaction in Paris in September 1863, before finally benefiting from successful revivals (including the current one) in only the last few decades.

Alfredo Daza (center, in blue tunic) and Nino Machadize (center, in red veil) in LA Opera’s 2017 production of “The Pearl Fishers.” Photo credit: Ken Howard

Taking another prosperous step further in resuscitating The Pearl Fishers, is the LA Opera cast of the four principals, who are guided by the effortless conducting powers of Plácido Domingo (Grant Gershon will conduct the last two shows on October 25th and 28th), and the terrific direction of Penny Woolcock, who infuses the opera with refreshingly modern elements. The opera, which leaves a gloriously lasting impression, symbolizes an intersection between tranquility and terror that paradoxically seems both complementary and starkly harrowing; nonetheless, it is an intoxicating concoction for the senses.

The cast’s talents are matched by the exquisite visual stimulation afforded by Dick Bird’s ominously breathtaking scenic design (inclusive of forebodingly oscillating ocean waves), Kevin Pollard’s inventive costumes, the eerily dim lighting by Jen Schriever, and the projection by 59 Productions. The latter is immediately introduced with great fanfare via projected images onto a scrim over the stage, providing the bubbles and glimmer of sunlight into a veritable dark sea, where, behind it, aerial acrobats (aerial choreography is by Andrew Dawson) stunningly recreate free-flowing, water-submerged-like movements.

Alfredo Daza as Zurga and Javier Camarena as Nadir in LA Opera’s 2017 production of “The Pearl Fishers.” Photo credit: Ken Howard

The chorus, too, in all their poetic passion and fury, deserves ample recognition for doing their part in invigorating Bizet’s score with an overwhelming verve and vivaciousness, overlaid by the pall of a beautiful sadness that is indelibly moving to listen to. For instance, “Sur la grève en feu,” “Brahma! divin Brahma!” and “Dès que le soleil” represent the fear and rallying cries of an impoverished people in the coastal shantytown of Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) that is reminiscent of the ruins of a Hindu temple. The blue, undulating sea is the inhabitants’ home, but they are reasonably apprehensive of how vulnerable they are to the dark swells and storms that could engulf them at a moment’s notice.

A mysteriously veiled priestess, Leïla (Nino Machaidze), who is brought to the village by the high priest, Nourabad (Nicholas Brownlee), is tasked with singing and chanting to stave off Ceylon’s negative energy. However, an intense love triangle develops involving not only Leïla and Nourabad, but particularly two best friends in Zurga (Alfredo Daza) and Nadir (Javier Camarena). Zurga and Nadir are very familiar with Leïla from a city called Kandy, so much so that they had to swear off their respective love for her in order to free themselves from divisiveness, salvaging their friendship. Some passions, though, are never extinguished, and Leïla and Nadir, who are still mightily in love, are the embroiled protagonists.

Nino Machaidze (right) as Leïla, with Nicholas Brownlee as Nourabad in LA Opera’s 2017 production of “The Pearl Fishers.” Photo credit: Ken Howard

Bizet’s music is an emotional tempest unto itself, characterized by a stirring passion and high stakes that are personalized and vivified by the four main characters, beginning with Nino Machaidze as Leïla. Machaidze is an enchantress on stage, with an astonishing presence as the “chosen” priestess. There is a palpable strength about her, but also an innocence in the delicateness with which she sings. At the end of Act I, during “O Dieu Brahma!” she sings lovingly about Nadir, intoning her notes with a gorgeous, coloratura quality that resonates as “light as a bird.”

Machaidze also shines in the three successive songs (“De mon amie, fleur endormie,” “Léïla! Léïla! Dieu puissant, le voilà!” and “Ton coeur n’a pas compris le mien”) she shares with Javier Camarena’s Nadir in Act II. Left in the chill of night after promising Nourabad of her chaste fidelity to the village, as its demon-chasing guardian, Leïla and Nadir sing tenderly about enchantment, their mutual longing, and their heartwarming understanding of one another. With the two kneeling, and holding each other, the cadences of Machaidze and Camarena’s voices intertwine like a match made in heaven, as two rays of light that shine warmly and resplendently.

Camarena is a soulful tenor whose enunciation is impeccable, and resonance as smooth as a still lake, but as powerful as a rising phoenix. His timbre reminds one of Vittorio Grigolo’s pleasing fullness, as it’s able to fill both an auditorium and even the most closed-off of hearts. Camarena’s sentimentality is especially experienced during the famous friendship duet – “Au fond du temple saint” — whereby the tenor’s melancholic magnetism counterbalances Alfredo Daza’s blissfully booming baritone voice, as Nadir and Zurga willfully vow to never allow Leïla to come between them.

Of course, this doesn’t happen, despite their best intentions. And so Zurga is overcome by a cycle of heart-wrenching emotions in Act III, brought to bear via his truculent musical duel with Leïla, who begs Zurga’s forgiveness. In his semi-contemporary dwelling, rife with cabinets and stacked papers in a lattice of cubby holes (a nice touch by director Woolcock to make the scene a little more relatable), Daza emotes a roller coaster of feelings: calmness, a love-struck fervency when he sees Machaidze’s Leïla, forgiveness, and then a rancorous, jealous-fueled rage. Daza is excellent at showing authentic facial expressions, immersing himself in the overwhelming cauldron of his character’s desires.

Nino Machaidze as Leila in LA Opera’s 2017 production of “The Pearl Fishers.” Photo credit: Ken Howard

Daza’s thunderously giant-sized vocals are hair-raising and chilling, gilded by a divinely echoing poignancy, clearing any opposition that lies before it. Daza’s vocalization (translated from French) of “it is I who am guilty” (during “Quoi! Innocent? Lui, Nadir?”) is so robust that it bowls over the listener, knocking him or her into Zurga’s solemn reality. This clemency burns unmercifully with Zurga’s envy upon discovering that Leïla loves Nadir, and Daza impressively turns the dial up even more, singing with a glowering and wrathful disposition that is inflamed by vengeance. In the midst of “Je suis jaloux,” Daza’s voice resounds spine-tinglingly like a charging train that has no brakes, and, better yet, it takes the audience for the ride.

Finally, contributing in a very underrated way to the three-act opera, and the evolution of its narrative, is Nicholas Brownlee as the exotically regal Nourabad. Brownlee never gets a solo, but he more than holds his own during the plethora of songs that he infuses with his substantive, bass-baritone register. Brownlee commands a fortifiable respect for his high-priest persona, and is part of a collaborative effort that has made Woolcock’s restaging of The Pearl Fishers magnificent, impassioned, and unforgettable.

Three more showings of LA Opera’s“The Pearl Fishers” remain on the schedule at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA: Sunday, October 22nd at 2 pm; Wednesday, October 25th at 7:30 pm; and Saturday, October 28th at 7:30 pm.

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