United Kingdom Stephenson, Campbell, van Dijk, Mandela Trilogy (Book and Lyrics by Michael Williams): Soloists and Chorus of Cape Town Opera, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Albert Horne (conductor and chorus master), Wales Millennium Centre, 20-21.6.2012. (European Premiere). (RJ)
Mandela 1 Thato Machona
Mandela 2 Aubrey Poo
Mandela 3 Aubrey Lodewyk
Mother Siphanmandla Yakupa
Chief Xolela Sixaba
Evelyn Nozuka Teto
Dolly Gloria Bosman
Winnie Philisa Sibeko
White Man Derick Ellis
Fr Huddleston Ralph Lawson
Prison Warden Anton Luitingh
Guard Niel Roux
Major Swart Glenn Swart
Journalist Mthunzi Mbombela
Director Michael Williams
Designer Michael Mitchell
Head of Wardrobe Maritha Visagie
Lighting Designer Faheem Bardien
Assistant Director Matthew Wild
Repetiteur Esté Visser
Oratorio, musical or opera? How should one describe a work which encompasses all three musical genres as this new South African music drama seeks to do. Mandela Trilogy is also unusual in employing not just one composer but three for a libretto by Cape Town Opera’s Managing Director Michael Williams, who also directs the production.
This is not The Mandela Story in the tradition of a Hollywood biopic, but rather a collection of stories, each representing a stage in the life of Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. The first, entitled Qunu Oratorio, is set in rural Transkei at the rite de passage ceremony where the young Mandela and the tribal chief’s son achieve manhood. The Chief warns them that despite their elevated status they will remain slaves with no control over their destiny, but the young men reject the tyranny of tribal custom (arranged marriage) and set out for the big wide world. Composer Allan Stephenson has drawn on the traditional songs of the Xhosa people sung in Xhosa to evoke the vibrant atmosphere of village life.
With Act Two, Sophiatown Rising, Mandela Trilogy turns into a musical with spoken dialogue and jazz music and arrangements by Mike Campbell. It depicts Mandela in his middle years as an orator – or agitator depending on what side of the political fence you stood on – when the authorities are beginning to crack down on political dissent. Much of the action is set in a seedy nightclub owned by Dolly and we learn of Mandela’s sleazier side – his fondness for women and neglect of his family. But then he meets a young woman wholeheartedly supports his aim of “winning hearts and minds” to the exclusion of everything else: Winnie.
Act Three, which is operatic in character, deals with Mandela’s treason trial in 1964 in which the actors representing each stage of his life bestride the stage demanding for justice and equality. Then come the long years of imprisonment when Peter Louis van Dijk’s music explores the inner Mandela increasingly concerned about Winnie’s actions and who feels he has failed as a son, as a father and as a man. I could not help thinking of the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, currently visiting Europe, who has also had to miss out on the pleasures of family life during her long imprisonment.
The three acts are knitted together by three exchanges between the imprisoned Mandela and those in authority. In the first in his cell on Robben Island he vehemently rejects retirement to Transkei and become a citizen if Bantustan. In the second the Minister of Justice offers him freedom in return for renouncing violence. In the third he is moved to more comfortable lodgings where his attendant feels that a new beginning is in sight.
Mandela Trilogy is a work that deserves to be considered on its own terms. It is a compelling drama containing a host of believable characters, not least the women in Mandela’s life; and musically it is very powerful, thanks to some committed playing by the WNO’s own orchestra under the very able direction of Albert Horne. Mr Horne is also the chorus master of Cape Town Opera, and I was glad that its chorus featured so frequently in the performance. One of South Africa’s strengths is its choral tradition and at the Millennium Centre I felt we were listening to the crème de la crème of the country’s singers. who performed protest songs, folk music, laments, songs of jubilation, jazz numbers and more classical music with versatility and verve. often in splendidly choreographed bursts of energy.
Aubrey Lodewyk gave a rounded performance of the older Mandela bringing dignity and great understanding to the role – in addition to having a fine voice. But this is not to belittle the performances of Thato Machopona as the young Mandela, who came over as a sympathetic character, or of Aubrey Poo, who was less sympathetic and self-centred – but that was how he was meant to be. The women were all terrific, especially Gloria Bosman as the feisty nightclub singer cum owner who really knows how to deliver the blues. Philisa Sibeko as Winnie made the transition from a demure attractive 21 year old to Bossy Boots with great aplomb. But the most terrifying character was Xolela Sixaba as the stern tribal chief.
So what’s the verdict? The nearest opera company to Cape Town must be thousands of miles away, so to create a home grown operatic tradition reflecting the spirit of South Africa and performing to such a high standard is some achievement. If one subscribes to Michael Williams’ premise that any good opera is about conflict and the notion of freedom then Mandela Trilogy has succeeded in its aims. Despite its unconventional structure it held the attention of the audience enabling one to appreciate the motives and sorrows of a leading figure of our time.
My only regret is that the performances of Mandela Trilogy have been confined to Cardiff, but the Welsh deserve it having given considerable support to Cape Town Opera in the past. The English, alas, have missed out on a momentous experience, but there is some consolation in that the company’s production of Porgy and Bess will visit Canterbury, Southampton and London (Coliseum) after it finishes in Cardiff.