Chorus, Placido Domingo, And Company Shine In Two New Productions At LA Opera

One of the LA Opera's under heralded assets is the consistent strength of its chorus. In both romantic and modern repertoire, and whatever the language, company choral master Grant Gershon's troops invariably heighten the musical, dramatic and atmospheric impact of any performance that features them.

The two productions running right now at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion showcase the LA Opera chorus in contrasting roles. In Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, which features only four principal solo singers, the chorus of villagers collectively acts as an essential fifth dramatic character, influencing the course of the action with its own motivating will—"a collective voice," in production director Penny Woolcock's description, "that lurches violently from simple pleasure to fear, from murderous rage to humble submission—and experiencing a tragic fate distinct from those of the other main figures. Meanwhile, the Giuseppe Verdi classic Nabucco features the chorus in a more traditionally supportive dramatic function, but also includes what may be the greatest, most recognizable choral number in all of opera, the soaring "Va Pensiero!" lamentation of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon.

The productions go beyond the strengths of the chorus, too, of course. Though not a flamboyant crowd-pleaser like Bizet's more famous Carmen, The Pearl Fishers contains plenty of dreamy musical passages, if perhaps not the most sympathetic basic plot you'll ever see in an opera. Certainly the strongest singer in this LA Opera production is rising international superstar tenor Javier Camarena from Mexico, making his company debut as the romantic lead Nadir. As good a tenor as we've heard at the Chandler Pavilion in recent years, Camarena is sensational in the opera's best aria "Je crois entendre encore" ("I think I can still hear...") and in its famous opening duet with baritone Alfredo Daza (also a Mexican national).

No less than any of the performances, what really distinguishes this production (which arrives in L.A. after acclaimed earlier runs at the English National Opera in London and the Metropolitan in New York) is the conceptual touch of British filmmaker Woolcock. Though the opera was originally created as a piece of romantic exotica set in a gauzily idealized ancient far east, Woolcock and her production design team lightly recalibrate the work (without overwhelming or impinging on its essential qualities) to resonate on issues both timeless and timely, from patriarchal subjugation to perilously rising sea levels. Projected video images of tropical devastation wreaked by unexpected hurricanes, created by London's 59 Productions group, are presciently and devastatingly on point.

Meanwhile, director Thaddeus Strassberger's Nabucco production is even more starkly recontextualized than the Woolcock Pearl Fishers.

Set in ancient Jerusalem and Babylon, the 1841 Verdi opera premiered in the early days of the Risorgimento movement for Italian unification and independence from the Habsburg empire, and some musicologists have suggested a thematic link between the Hebrew people's longing for their homeland depicted on stage and the Italian patriotic sentiment surging in Verdi's time. Inspired by this notion, Strassberger embeds the opera's principal story of political and family intrigue in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) within the framework of a mid-19th century theatrical performance, with old-guard aristocratic opera patrons milling about and armed Austrian soldiers overseeing the proceedings with a mandate to suppress any sudden demonstrations of the popular will.

For much of the performance this historical interpolation seems largely extraneous and unfocused. By the time the (very) final curtain falls, however, all of the production's elements powerfully coalesce and the Italianate strains of Verdi's Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves resonate meaningfully across the millennia.

Singing the title role of Nabucco is none other than LA Opera General Director Placido Domingo. Some opera cognoscenti disparage the late-career transition into baritone roles by the world's most famous opera singer, but we're not those cognoscenti. Though his voice retains some of the timber of his tenor origins, there is no trace of discomfort in his adopted lower range (or "tessitura," as the pros call it) and nary a ravage of his reportedly advanced age in his performance, which happens to mark the 50th anniversary of his Los Angeles debut.

Making her own L.A. debut in this production, Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska is nothing less than astonishing in the role of Abigaille, ceding nothing to Domingo's star power in their third act duet and showing off her own incandescence in two second act arias. Spanish soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera and American bass Morris Robinson, both LA Opera veterans, also deliver stellar performances in what could be the most memorable and enjoyable production of Nabucco you'll ever have a chance to catch.

The Pearl Fishers has two more performances, today and Saturday. Nabucco has five more performances, all in November. Tickets $16 and (way) up. Senior and student rush tickets available for most performances. Discounted tickets to some performances available on goldstar.com.