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The Pearl Fishers

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With the LA Opera opening production of Carmen followed closely by The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles), it seems that everything is coming up Bizet. Pearl Fishers doesn’t have the sustained genius of Carmen, but it was written by a 24-year-old Bizet over a decade before composing his masterpiece. The opera is an example of “Orientalism,” which is basically 19th Century Europe’s self-congratulatory fascination with the exotic cultures existing in their colonies.

The allure of stories set in distant lands thrived in art, literature, and drama well into the 20th Century and the birth of cinema. As a genre, the “Oriental” craze produced genuine masterpieces like Madama Butterfly along with 19th Century operatic staples like Lakme which are infrequently revived today. Pearl Fishers falls into the latter category, but it has some beautiful and worthy music. Its well-known Baritone/Tenor duet, “Au fond du temple sacre,” hasn’t managed to find its way into as many films and commercials as Lakme’s “Flower Duet,” but it remains a favorite with singers and audiences.

The score has many other glories, including beautifully evocative orchestrations, a wonderful aria for the soprano, and a thrilling duet for the soprano and tenor. It also contains what is perhaps Bizet’s most haunting aria, the ethereal, “Je crois entendre encore,” sung by the tenor.

The problem with Pearl Fishers is the uninspired libretto which barely cobbles together a plot that felt hackneyed at its premiere. In a vaguely historic Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Zurga (Alfredo Daza), the leader of the Pearl Fishers, his best friend, Nadir (Javier Camarena) and a mysterious temple virgin, Leila (Nino Machaidze) form a dangerous romantic triangle. In the years prior to the opera, both men fell in love with Leila, fought, then vowed never to let a woman come between them. As the opera opens, Nadir returns to the Pearl Fishers’s village and is reunited with Zurga. In the great duet, they renew their vow of friendship. Scarcely has the applause died down before Leila appears. The temptation of forbidden love overpowers both Nadir and Leila, and they break their vows. They are discovered and sentenced to death by a jealous Zurga. But, after discovering that, as a child, Leila saved his life, Zurga distracts the villagers by burning their village and frees the lovers.

Early performances of Pearl Fishers focused on the picturesque elements. Costumes were colorful, if inauthentic, and the scenic design tended toward set drops painted with crumbling temples situated in jungle clearings. Recent productions haven’t necessarily strived for realism, but producers did realize that the opera offers plenty of opportunities for today’s generally fit opera singers to flash their bare chests and midriffs.

Director Penny Woolcock approaches this production with a decidedly modern sensibility. She strips away the exotic touches and the skin parade, centering the opera in a believably ramshackle maritime village. She subtly places the chorus center stage whenever possible, allowing the romantic triangle a broader context within the life of the village.  And she skillfully uses projections along with less hi-tech theatrical magic to expand the visual and thematic palette of the opera. A beautiful opening image shows divers plunging into the depths as they search for the pearls that form their livelihood. But, even more potent, in the wake of the devastation wrought in Puerto Rico, are the images of the blasted island landscape following a hurricane. Woolcock can’t solve all the contradictions and coincidences in the libretto, but she manages to subdue them for the most part.

The principals are all strong performers, though Daza and Machaidze tend to oversing at times. Machaidze has a larger voice and a darker timbre than is usual in the role, which does add some vocal excitement. But it seems like too much of a good thing in her first aria as her steely tone fights with her demure acting performance. By the duet, she has found a comfortable middle ground which convincingly weds her intensity with her character. Camarena is a winning Nadir with an attractive and elegant sound. Like many tenors, he has slight problems with the head tone required in “Je crois entendre encore.” It’s a style of singing rarely used for an entire aria, and it was always a bit of a French specialty. Daza is great at portraying Zurga’s bluster and bitterness, though it would be nice to find some other colors. The LA Opera Chorus is simply sensational in their every moment on stage.

There are few conductors whose opening applause can compete with the singers, but Placido Domingo is one. Luckily, his colorful and evocative reading of Bizet’s score proves that the ovation is well-deserved.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion    October 7 – October 28, 2017    LAOpera.org

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.