After launching its season with a subpar Carmen, LA Opera returned courageously to Bizet with a brilliant production of The Pearl Fishers. With the warmth of Plácido Domingo's voice and artistry expressing itself through his baton, the cast and crew responded as if this were the performance that was going to put Georges Bizet's Indian Ocean melodrama back on the operatic map.

<i>The Pearl Fishers</i> prelude © Ken Howard
The Pearl Fishers prelude
© Ken Howard

Accordingly, Penny Woolcock's production opened with a brilliant theatrical stroke that married Sea World with Cirque du Soleil: during the orchestral prelude, and behind a breathtakingly real scrim, a small fleet of pearl divers swam and floated and navigated – not naked but sensual all the same, and ideally suited to a town where a waterlogged goddess named Esther Williams once held reign. 

When the action proper got underway, the set turned out to be a piece of picturesquely-painted, multi-level genius which came apart like a transformer along the lines of the sets in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – they played a similar role in humanizing the soap opera's outsize emotions and providing a lot of fun stuff to look at. It was such a team effort that the singers transformed their characters beyond the words they spoke and the music they sang. It was in the acting on stage, along and unafraid, which made the opera come alive.

Alfredo Daza (Zurga), Nino Machaidze (Leïla) and Chorus © Ken Howard
Alfredo Daza (Zurga), Nino Machaidze (Leïla) and Chorus
© Ken Howard

Of course, when you're talking Pearl Fishers, you have to know the score, because after Bizet's death a number of versions were subsequently produced to make it more au courant and wound up making a mess. Woolcock's production is built primarily upon the 1863 original version of Pêcheurs with the traditional 1893 version of the Nadir/Zurga duet "Au fond du temple saint." 

Even though he is absent for long stretches, the presence and restrained scene munching of Alfredo Daza's Zurga commanded the story from beginning to end. His was always going to be the bitter forgiveness that was required, and he knew it from his first entrance, handing out money to the people for their votes, and settling into his role of a dictator... but one capable of torment. Daza's famous duet with Nadir was one of the highlights of the show.

Nino Machaidze (Leïla) © Ken Howard
Nino Machaidze (Leïla)
© Ken Howard

Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze inhabited the wonderfully ambiguous role of Leïla, breaking through moments of uncertain voice production and fluttery tone to enter realms of unforgettable magic. In her duet with Nadir she floated around at first then redeemed herself with moments of absolute sweetness and light, expressed at times in trilling riffs and other tasty demonstrations of virtuosity. 

The main trio was completed by Javier Camarena's Nadir whose charming manner and thrilling lyric tenor, with only a few uncomfortable high notes, made Zurga's jealousy and Leïla's attraction totally understandable. And as all Nourabads must, Nicholas Brownlee clinched the storytelling deal, imposing his presence on the continuity and contributing singing of real magnificence and beauty.

One casualty of the multinational cast was the quality of the French which was pretty unintelligible as might have been expected from one American, one Georgian and two Mexicans. In fact, I wish they had retained the original title of the opera – The Pearl Fishers sounds like some steamy exotic thriller. By contrast, Les Pêcheurs de perles has a much different cultural context: "Pêcheurs" has many senses in addition to fisher; the most relevant is "sinner". Additionally, since so much of French history and cultural legacy in rooted in the seas, the idea of men and women diving for ambiguous earthly treasures, reaches much more deeply into the maritime areas of the French soul. You could even see the opera as a Puccini-esque verismo vehicle.

Alfredo Daza (Zurga) and Javier Camarena (Nadir) © Ken Howard
Alfredo Daza (Zurga) and Javier Camarena (Nadir)
© Ken Howard

Verismo or not, it was Domingo in the pit who made it happen. The audience wouldn't let him go before he finally began to conduct an orchestra crackling with excitement, with the strings biting into their notes, sending electricity through a house already intoxicated from the water ballet. Domingo took full advantage of the opportunity to support the production with the full depth of his knowledge and experience, treating the singers as if they were gods, and doing everything he could with his superb orchestra to support the magic that was happening on stage. 

Looking like a leftover set from a Terry Gilliam movie is not a bad thing, and the LA Opera crew made the most of Dick Bird's busy shanty town and Kevin Pollard's varied and elaborate costumes. No standard issue fisher folk here. The production's one flaw was the storm. Storms are never easy to handle, but after the brilliantly imaginative aquatic opening, to have to sit through two different five-minute stretches, of annoyingly raspy, indistinct black and white flood of projections covering scene changes in the second and third acts which immediately, if unintentionally, suggested Puerto Rico and threw the opera's whole ambience out of whack.