Maverick Life

THE PEARL FISHERS

Real opera royalty – Levy Sekgapane and Cape Town Opera bring the house down

Real opera royalty – Levy Sekgapane and Cape Town Opera bring the house down
Brittany Smith as Leïla and Levy Sekgapane as Nadir in 'The Pearl Fishers'. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

If you thought seeing South African opera diva Pretty Yende sing for the English king’s crowning was something special, wait till you hear a stage full of local singing stars raise the roof in Cape Town.

I’m no opera expert, but then neither, it seems, were the critics who, when they saw Les pêcheurs de perles at its Paris premier in 1863, were unkind towards the production.

I can say this because I know what I saw and heard and felt at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre on Wednesday night – it was a sparkling staging of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Impeccable singing, riveting music, soaring emotions, such a deep commitment to the production by a cast of homegrown stars, and the entire Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra driving things from the pit.

Crisply directed by Elisabeth Manduell, it’s clean, clear, pure and focused, a valuable lesson in how and why great artworks survive through the ages.

Rather than a fully designed set, the scaled-back, “semi-staged” production uses beautiful backdrop projections of illustrations by Cape Town artist Shakil Solanki to create an atmosphere for the action. Executed in shades of blue and turquoise, Solanki’s works add to the dreamlike, liminal quality of the production, a kind of parallel universe that’s opened up as the stage is bathed in blue light and the auditorium fills with music and voice.

What’s comforting about this stripping back of the production is that it’s a reminder that in this age when everyone is constantly distracted by their tiny devices and their shimmering handheld screens, it is entirely possible for us to be torn out of ourselves, to have our guts metaphorically ripped asunder by exquisite singing, beautiful music and a story that is basically one non-stop powder keg of emotions. 

Conroy Scott as Zurga in ‘The Pearl Fishers’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

Under examination is how we humans fall in love, who we choose to love, and what this love – be it brotherly or romantic – does to us, how it tears us apart, changes us, makes us do things that can destroy us. Or save us. 

There’s a timelessness to the story, in which we are metaphorically dispatched to a place of strange rituals and foreign gods (Brahma is the Hindu deity who is repeatedly mentioned), otherworldly customs and beliefs. Less metaphorically, the setting is Sri Lanka, then ancient Ceylon, a fishing village that, thanks to the staging, could be almost anywhere in the universe, anywhere in time. It’s here that Nadir turns up, seemingly out of the blue, just as his old friend-turned-rival, Zurga, has been proclaimed king by an adoring people.

What we learn through lyrics that grapple with the two men’s traumatic past is that their great friendship was, once upon a time, torn asunder by a mutual love interest. So, it’s a love triangle from their youth, a bitter rivalry that ruined their friendship.

In real life, such a rift might never be healed, but Bizet’s opera seems designed to demonstrate the power of music to transcend even the most awful circumstances. In one of opera’s best-known and rousing tenor-baritone duets, “Au fond du temple saint” (often called “The Pearl Fishers Duet”), sung between Nadir and Zurga, the music seems to demonstrate that true love is eternal and that real friendship can be always be rekindled, that it can rise from the ashes. 

It’s a bit shocking, though, when the old flame, Leïla, now a priestess, turns up looking radiant but whose religious vows preclude any physical affection.

We know, of course, that vows like these are made to be broken and that there will be consequences once Leïla’s identity becomes known and old emotions resurface. Trouble is coming, the gods are watching, and humans who break their vows will need to be punished. It’s a real romantic potboiler, a soap opera that’s as old as time itself.

Brittany Smith as Leïla in ‘The Pearl Fishers’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

On that particular Wednesday at the start of winter, many opera fans had possibly arrived simply for the rare opportunity to hear bel canto tenor Levy Sekgapane sing the part of Nadir. Sekgapane, who is now based in Germany, and who is in huge demand and continuously touring Europe, is one of South Africa’s great opera success stories. Along with Pretty Yende, he is one of two South African opera singers to have won Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition, an achievement that kick-started his international career in 2017. 

While Sekgapane is indeed enthralling, he shares the stage with a local cast quite capable of holding their own internationally. Among them are Cape Town Opera soloists Conroy Scott (as Zurga) and Brittany Smith (as Leïla), and the rather regal Rueben Mbonambi (as Nourabad). Plus the full Cape Town Opera Chorus. What they do, collectively, is quite something to behold.  

Bizet composed The Pearl Fishers 10 years before Carmen, but you’d have to be a bit deaf at least not to notice the unfolding genius. 

With hindsight you realise that while he was not even 25 years old, he was already experimenting – with the form, and with the depths to which he could plunder the soul for raw, gritty emotion that he rendered as music. 

Those unkind critics back then were apparently put off by what they deemed a shaky storyline with too much fantastical coincidence. Yet, one of the triumphs of the opera is the manner in which Bizet uses it to investigate the degree to which the music can draw us away from the rational and compel us to care about the three characters caught in a romantic paradox. 

It is not merely the story of two friends who in the past fought over the same woman and must now relive that emotional hell. It is an opera about music’s power to make us feel things that exist beyond what is reasonable. 

There is also what I would regard as a spiritual dimension to the music. Listening in that auditorium, I felt as though some sort of religious reckoning were unfolding, as though Bizet was toying with the notion of love as something more than mere emotion, expressing the idea that it is the human capacity to love that is the highest power in the universe, elevating love as the intangible embodiment of god. Quite a thing to suggest in France in 1863.

Cape Town Opera’s production of ‘The Pearl Fishers’. (Photo: Kim Stevens)

The effect, though, is to have created something transcendent. I for one was on the edge of my seat, hoping against hope that somehow these characters would snap free of the bonds of the narrative and escape their fate. That love would, after all, prevail. 

And isn’t that the thing with great storytelling? That even when you know that the star-crossed lovers must die at the end, or that one hero must sacrifice himself for his beloved friend and for the woman he loves so deeply in his heart, even when you know these things, you continue to hope against all reason, suspended in a dream that transcends reality and sustains that fantasy until the opera ends and you are on your feet along with the entire audience, clapping and screaming “Bravo! Brava!” until the lights come up. DM/ML

The Pearl Fishers is at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre. It ends on Sunday, 14 May. Tickets from Computicket.

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