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SCENE IT: Love and betrayal collide spectacularly in THE PEARL FISHERS

Barbara Loots


Love, betrayal, rage and redemption, what more do you need for an impressive operatic love triangle? THE PEARL FISHERS delivers on every one of those elements in the Cape Town Opera staging of this Bizet masterpiece, currently onstage at the Artscape Theatre until 14 May 2023 only.

“On the burning sand where the blue sea sleeps… dance until evening… with your songs, drive away the evil spirits… to defy Death… on the burning sand…” - Chorus, THE PEARL FISHERS

The setting of Bizet’s opera, THE PEARL FISHERS (Les pêcheurs de perles), is a humble one: In a small fishing village leader elect, Zurga (Conroy Scott), and his childhood friend, Nadir (Levy Sekgapane), both fall in love with an initially unknown priestess, Leila (Brittany Smith). This fateful moment sets in motion events that tests their pledge of friendship at the time when the village seeks the priestess’ protection for the pearl divers out at sea. Humble it may be, but the music elevates the modest setting to a moving opera, amplified by the libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. It reveals all the elements Bizet later presented with deepened intensity in Carmen.

Although some may regard THE PEARL FISHERS as the lesser of Bizet’s operas, one can also argue that while it may sacrifice some of the Carmen-esque depth Bizet is known for, it does fearlessly pursue its purpose (to clearly and quickly reveal the heart of the love-denied tragedy) with great theatrical effect.

The libretto is heavy with omens, metaphors and superstitions; perfect for a tale that reveals the impact both of stormy seas and emotions. The culmination of all the operatic elements in THE PEARL FISHERS strikes a balance between delicate emotions and delightful vocals.

Smith charmingly embodies her character. Leila morphs from submissive maiden into spirited heroine, as she finds herself torn between her virginal task of rebuffing the dark spirits threatening survival at sea and offering her life in return for the salvation of her true love.

International bel canto tenor, Sekgapane, impresses, hitting all the right romantic notes and nuances, while Scott matches him with his beautiful baritone, revealing his unquestionable operatic calibre.

In fact, out of all the high quality performances this production of THE PEARL FISHERS offers (and an all-round impressive staging by Cape Town Opera this definitely is), Scott stands out not only for his vocal capabilities, but also for his fantastic stage presence.

The direction by Elisabeth Manduell is clear and restrained, allowing the music to guide every movement and emotion.

The concepts of love and treachery oscillate furiously in this opera, to great dramatic effect. The overall beauty of Bizet’s composition cannot be denied, though it is when the fury of his music rolls through the orchestra that THE PEARL FISHERS truly starts punching to the gods. The Cape Town Philharmonic's performance of the music, under the direction of conductor Adam Szmidt, adds to the splendor of the whole experience. As does the expressive artwork of Shakil Solanki, with strong classical eastern influences; it provides the projected scenic backdrop against which the story unfolds.

This run of THE PEARL FISHERS at the Artscape Theatre is a very limited one, with the last performance on 14 May 2023. The ticket prices range from R112 to R600. Sung in French, with English and isiXhosa surtitles. Sekgepane is set to perform as Nadir on 12 and 14 May, while Lukyanyo Mokaye takes on the role at the performance on 13 May. Tickets are available online through Computicket.


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