Holy Brahma, Ma: Follow Me and I Shall Make of Ye Fishers of Pearls

Bing Crosby crooned about “Sweet Leilani,” that Hawaiian “heavenly flower” in Harry Owens’ Academy Award-winning hapa haole ditty. Eric Clapton sang that “Layla” “got me on my knees.” In Michael Connelly’s crime novel Trunk Music, LAPD Detective Harry Bosch scours Las Vegas, searching for the missing stripper also named Layla. And in The Pearl Fishers Georges Bizet features the enticing high priestess Leila (beguiling Tblisi, Georgia soprano Nino Machaidze, last seen gracing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as Mimi in 2016’s La Boheme).


Originally set in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), this stunning production is simply eye-popping, with sublime music, even if Michel Carre and Eugene Cormon’s turgid libretto is fraught with Freudian symbolism about sexual repression and religious zealotry (funny how those two things often go hand in hand). LA Opera gives Bizet the Hollywood treatment, opening with a scrim that makes it seem as if the stage is underwater, as real life “swimmers” (or “scrim-mers”?) cavort about.


The special effects reach a frenzy with a hurricane apparently ripped straight out of the headlines with projections (courtesy of 59 Productions) of a photo montage of storm-caused devastation reminiscent of Puerto Rico, although, according to English director Penny Woolcock, they are actually images of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the 2011 Japanese Tsunami. For good measure there is also an onstage fire, too!


But I’m getting ahead of myself: The FX are not nearly as explosive as the plot wherein two lifelong friends - Zurga (Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza) and Nadir (Mexican tenor Javier Camarena) - promise not to let the bewitching beauty Leila get between them. Bros before hos! But Nadir proves to be a real hoser, as his lust for the supposedly virginal but tempting priestess gets the best of him - and Leila. As libidinous desires are unleashed, all hell breaks loose in a passion play (Hindu, not Christian) that whipsaws back and forth, between vengeance and mercy, with torch-bearing mobs of acolytes demanding the execution of their priestess, who has “betrayed” them, and her “defiler.” Holy Shiva!


The three act opera (presented here with two intermissions) gets quite florid, but Bizet’s recurring musical refrain, “Au fond du temple” (“in the depths of the temple” - of the Hindu god Brahma, that is), which at first is a duet between the two friends, is initially delivered along with exceedingly lovely strumming of a harp and a flute. This haunting, lilting leitmotif is one of those rare pieces of music, sound that can soothe a seething soul, still a feverish heart, bring surcease to a troubled psyche. It is exquisitely rendered under the baton of our very own beloved Plácido Domingo, bringing placidity, if only momentarily, to a world weary audience. Grant Gershon picks up the baton for the Oct. 25 and 28 performances of this knockout show.


Dick Bird’s sets, especially of the fishing village, are a delight to behold, as are Kevin Pollard’s costumes - all sights for sore eyes, enhanced often by the British-based 59 Productions’ projections. There are some odd flourishes, such as in Zurga’s Kafka-esque office, where, according to helmer Woolcock, stock footage of floods in South East Asia plays on a TV screen. (Geez, I wonder what images flickered on the television sets in Pearl’s Parisian premiere back in 1863?)


Although it’s not made specifically clear, I assume that the opera’s title is actually a reference to pearl divers. Having been to pearl farms at atolls in the South Seas such as Manihi and, aboard the cargo-cruiser Aranui, seven times to Takapoto in French Polynesia’s Tuamotu archipelago of low-lying isles, I’m familiar with the lore of pearl diving. This intrepid underwater endeavor is portrayed in the Nordoff and Hall novel The Hurricane, made into a classic 1937 movie directed by John Ford, starring the “Sarong Girl” Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall, with a great piece of music called “The Moon of Manakoora.” I can only speculate that somewhere along the way, Charles Nordoff and/or James Norman Hall saw The Pearl Fishers before they moved to Tahiti.


Not too unlike Lamour, Machaidze is a fetching, sultry sarong-clad goddess - her Leila certainly, got this opera buff on his knees. Machaidze’s warbling reminded me of Jeanette MacDonald in those musicals opposite Nelson Eddy playing an RCMP mountie or whatever during Hollywood’s golden age. This jaw-dropping production of The Pearl Fishers is a musical and optical tour de force, a true gem. LA Opera continues to outdo itself with razzle-dazzle and sonorous splendor in what may be an operatic golden age of its own. I can hardly wait to review Plácido star in Nabucco.


The Pearl Fishers will be performed Oct. 19, Oct. 25, and Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday Oct. 22 at 2:00 p.m. at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: https://www.laopera.org/season/1718-Season/pearlfishers/.


Highlights of LA Opera’s 2017/2018 Season include:


  • Plácido Domingo conducting Pearl Fishers, starring in the title role of Nabucco and being celebrated for his 50 years in Los Angeles (not at LA Opera, but on the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion).

  • Candide is part of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial celebration and our commitment to always including a contemporary work in every season.

  • Orpheus and Eurydice is a co-production with Lyric Opera and includes the Joffrey Ballet

  • Matthew Aucoin will conduct Rigoletto, his original work Crossing will be presented at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

  • Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 film adaptation of La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast): Three special presentations at the spectacular Theatre at Ace Hotel will feature four vocalists performing along with the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by Michael Riesman, celebrate Halloween. See: https://www.laopera.org/season/1718-Season/Belle/.

  • An adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Persona at REDCAT.

  • Off Grand’s double bill of Gordon Getty’s Usher House and Canterville Ghost at The Broad Stage.

  • A recital with Renee Fleming in February, along with an Audra McDonald concert slated in May.

For details see: https://www.laopera.org/season/1718-Season/.


L.A. reviewer Ed Rampell is co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist on Oct. 27 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills (for details see: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute).