Mandela Trilogy: A Night At The Opera @ WMC

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Mandela Trilogy | 25th August 2016 | WMC

I feel as though I should make something clear before I begin this review. I am not a regular opera-goer. As such, I am not too readily familiar with the norms of the genre. So, it could be that half the things that I end up saying in this article are wrong due to my own ignorance of what usually goes into the format.

But, nevertheless, I intend to give the show the just critique that it deserves. For although I may not be the most qualified person for reviewing opera, I know a good show when I see one. And the Mandela Trilogy opera was, if anything, a very good show.

The opera has three acts (the aforementioned trilogy), along with a prologue, each of which focuses upon a certain event in Mandela’s life and his struggle against the oppressive system of South African Apartheid. It was, at first, difficult to accustom myself to the habit in opera where normal speech is translated into song.

It is an odd experience to hear phrases, like “You’re just bloody communists!” and “Would you like a can of Coca-Cola?” being sung in full-throated operatic tones. The opera’s Prologue, First Act and Third Act all take the traditional format of operatic vocals, with the first act also incorporating African beats and gimmicks from the Xhosa nation.

“Traditional South African folk songs”

But, it is the second act that throws the audience slightly, with Jazz music combined with the more traditional South African folk songs, with shady street-lamp props giving off an atmosphere of a neo-noir, Broadway-type musical in an obvious effort by the composers to try to find a more commercial avenue by straying into musical theatre for roughly half an hour.

Although this inconsistency in format does confuse the audience slightly, it does not take away from the marvellous performances of the Cape Town Opera, as they heroically go from strength to strength, with three different actors playing Mandela to varying degrees of success as each act comes into play.

As for the plot itself, the opera does suffer from the very simple problem of time. They know that they have to make this magnificent story of Mandela’s life, loves and struggle fit into less than two and a half hours, with a twenty-minute interval in the middle and, as such, strive to try and fit in as much as possible into the time available.

The opening prologue gets off to a slightly confused start by featuring the elder Mandela, played by the magnificent Aubrey Lodewyk, imprisoned at Robben Island during the mid-70’s, being offered a deal by the South African government to retire to his homeland in the Xhosa heartlands, a deal that he refuses.

The first act quickly follows as the older Mandela, watching over his younger self, played by Thato Machona, reminisces about life in the Xhosa nation during the 1930’s and his experiences undergoing tribal circumcision and learning about his ancestor, Makhanda.

This segment contains several musical highlights, including “No more will you thula, thula”, sung by Mandela’s mother, played by Tina Mene, upon realising that her dutiful son has become a man, and a chorus of the ensembles female performers.

“Indigenous music”

The second act focuses upon Mandela, here played by Peace R. Nzirawa, during his early years involved in the fight against apartheid in the freehold township of Sophiatown, as well as taking a quick look at Mandela’s personal life, the failure of his first marriage, his affair with a night-club singer, and the beginning of his new life with Winnie Mandela.

As I have noted beforehand, Act 2 is where the opera strays the most into the more cosmopolitan part of the opera, incorporating a more jazz-influenced score along with indigenous music and a style of sequenced dancing only usually found in a Broadway 50’s musical.

The third and final act opens with an operatic version of Mandela’s speech at the Riviona trial, where all three Mandelas appear on stage together, singing separately and in unison. It continues throughout the difficult years of Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment, his time on Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison, finally culminating with his “Time Has Come” speech as a free man.

Now, although the third act contains the ultimate powerhouse of performances from the whole ensemble, it suffers slightly in that the story feels incredibly rushed. Whereas the first act focuses on a rough five-year period, with the second covering one specific year, the third act has been forced to cover an entire thirty-year period into just a mere forty minutes of operatic performance.

It is a bit of a letdown at the end of such a marvellous performance by a committed ensemble of terrific performers, but while I do think that this opera is a terrific showcase of both Mandela’s life and the talents of the Cape Town Opera, I should also like to point out that this may not be to everyone’s liking.

Whereas some historically-minded audience-goers may take issue with where the composers have chosen to focus on Mandela’s life, or that the more die-hard operas fans might be discouraged by the diversity in format half-way through the show.

All these things are mere quibbles when it comes down to the sheer power of the ensemble and their performances, in what is truly a magnificent musical tribute to a truly magnificent man.

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