What: George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles)

Company: Cape Town Opera
When and where: May 10-14, 2023, Artscape Opera House 
Booking link: https://tickets.computicket.com/event/the_pearl_fishers/1159956 

Director: Elisabeth Manduell
Cast: Includes – Levy Sekgapane, Lukhanyo Moyake, Conroy Scott and Brittany Smith and Reuben Mbonambi  
Concept: Matthew Wild
Stage and costume design: Michael Mitchell 
Visual artist: Shakil Solanki 
Lighting design:  Faheem Bardien  
Orchestra: Cape Town Philharmonic 
Conductor: Adam Szmidt
Language: Sung in French, with surtitles in isiXhosa and English

In June 2021, I saw Cape Town Opera’s staging of George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) and was wowed by the innovative production – which includes vivid paintings by Cape Town artist, Shakil Solanki, beamed onto the stage via ‘illuminations’ – in large scale projection format.  In June 2021, we were subject to strict lockdown regulations because of the global pandemic. There was an audience of 50. There we were in the Opera House at Artscape, with the Cape Town Philharmonic and Cape Town Chorus. I think that the number of the company on stage may have equalled the number in the audience. I see from my review in 2021, that there were meant to be three performances but that two were cancelled because of a Covid roadblock. How lucky, I was to be one of fifty people in the audience that night in the winter 2021.

Fast forward to last night, May 10, 2023, winter and I was thrilled to be back at Artscape, in its theatre (smaller than the Opera House) to once again be treated to this special production. It is sublimely exquisite. The music by Bizet is exquisite. [The opera was first staged in 1836, when Bizet was 25 years old]. The art work by Shakil Solanki glimmers in a rhapsody of blues and greens. And then there are the sublime voices of the opera artists. The concept by Matthew Wild is “semi-staged” or “concert style”. Sets are not dropped in and out as one is used to in most opera. However, there is nothing ‘semi’ about this production which is visually and aurally a wow. Elisabeth Manduell directed in 2021 and directs again, with a finely tuned eye and ear. The balance between soloists, chorus, orchestra and design (art, costumes, lighting) is finely and seamlessly tuned. The smaller venue heightens the intimacy of the production.

South African born Levy Sekgapane sings Nadir. It is his debut performance as Nadir and he is spectacular as he brings a spiritual quality to the character. The Bel canto tenor was born in Kroonstad and currently lives in Munich. I cannot speak French but I can recognise words and phrases I was captivated at Sekgapane’s articulation, with the language ringing out. He folds himself into the role of Nadir- the man who has been away from his pearl fishing village in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and then returns, after a year. His friend is Zurga (Conroy Scott) and they have had a fallout. There are strong hints in the libretto that they had a physical relationship on their island. I see from reviews that that Nadir and Zurga are often played, with lots of bare chests: The flashing of flesh- hunks in a pearl fishing village. I laughed at some production images which make it look like Survivor and naked men, bonding in an exotic location. In Matthew Wild’s framing of the opera, the interplay of their past relationship is delicately delineated and amplified subtly by the images in the paintings. It is very beautiful and achingly poignant.

Leaving aside the pearl fishermen’s oceanic boyhood and sexual adventures, in the opera, we see their rivalry play out as they tussle over a woman, a priestess, Leïla (Brittany Smith). As a priestess, she had apparently pledged not to do physical love but things change. It is a love triangle- with a lot of conflicts. It is interesting to note how Solanki has riffed off “queer love” in his images- hands intertwined – could be any of their hands. Read my interview with Solanki, here: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/interview-cape-town-artist-shakil-solanki-subverting-the-narrative-of-the-the-pearl-fishers-into-a-queer-love-triangle-for-cape-town-operas-production/. I was fascinated on my second viewing of this opera, to watch as the imaging is bounced off the libretto.

Brittany Smith, who recently won her 2nd Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for opera [58th awards – shows in 2022] is magnificent as Leïla as his Conroy Scott, who also received a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award at the 58th awards. Smith recently starred opposite Sandra Prinsloo in Cape Town Opera’s production of Terrence McNally’s Masterclass and her acting and vocal smarts were evidenced in that role. She brings multiple layers to Leïla – the object of desire for Nadir and Zurga. There is magic between Nadir, Leïla and Zurga. They evoke nodes of complex yearning – tensions – betrayal, competitiveness, desire. The way the three emanate on stage in the sea of blue and greens of Solanki’s paintings, reminds me of singers in a spiritual context. I thought of a Chazzan – a Jewish Cantor – standing before a congregation – communing with the congregation- and chanting his lamentations. It is as if they transfigure on stage- luminous -in the glow of Solankis’ motifs.

I was dazzled in 2021 by the famous duet, Au fond du temple saint, sung by Nadir and Zurga in act 1. It is loosely translated from the French as – “at the back of the holy temple” which pings off my sense of the sacred vibe of this production.  Again in 2023, listening to Au fond du temple saint, I gasped as Nadir and Zurga are immersed in a mutual chant. The message: Love, friendship and respect will transcend challenges and conflicts – perhaps not physically – but emotionally. We gather at the temple of opera to be elevated by voice and beauty. Do not miss the extraordinary Levy Sekgapane (wonderful to have him back in his home country), Brittany Smith and Conroy Scott. Reuben Mbonambi is fabulous as Nourabad. Lukhanyo Moyake alternates the role of Nadir with Sekgapane. The award winning Cape Town Chorus is magnificent. Bravo- all round.

✳ Images by Kim Stevens- supplied.

Related coverage of Cape Town Opera’s The Pearl Fishers on TheCapeRobyn:

Interview with Matthew Wild – originator of concept of Cape Town Opera’s The Pearl Fishers: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/opera-interview-matthew-wild-talks-about-cape-town-opera-2021-season

Review of Cape Town Opera’s The Pearl Fishers, June 2021:  https://thecaperobyn.co.za/opera-review-cape-town-opera-the-pearl-fishers-june-2021/