Since its foundation in 1999, Cape Town Opera has heroically fostered the growth of opera in South Africa, while spreading the word internationally about the wonderful voices which thrive in that country’s soil. And its close connection with the Wales Millennium Centre made this the perfect venue for the European premiere of Michael Williams’s biographical ‘Mandela Trilogy’.
Each of this opera’s three acts has a different composer, and each features a different singer as Mandela: with an all-South African cast, this was the ideal show-case for what can be achieved in a country still new to the venerable European art-form.
In fact only the third act is properly operatic, with the first cast in the form of an oratorio composed by Allan Stephenson, whose mode is austerely atonal. We encounter the young Mandela (Thato Machona) in the first of a series of framing dialogues with an all-purpose Whiteman (the excellent Derrick Ellis), then we move to a village full of chants and ritual dances.
There is some concession here to Xhosa culture, but nowhere near enough - Stephenson has tamed the thrilling vividness of the real village sound, and the performers seem constrained. Further dialogue increases the sense of awkwardness, with lines like ‘Would you care for a sherry?’ set with wildly inappropriate intensity.
Act Two takes place in the bohemian atmosphere of Sophiatown where, thanks to Williams’s skilful direction, Michael Mitchell’s luminous designs, and Mike Campbell’s jazz-based score, this fine company hits its stride: politics merges with partying, while newsreel and live-action are happily married. Here we meet ‘Miriam Makeba’ courtesy of Gloria Bosman’s luscious sound (with more than a hint of Cardiff’s own Makeba, Shirley Bassey), supported by a fine trumpeter (shades of Makeba’s erstwhile husband Hugh Masekela). And here we meet ‘Trevor Huddleston’, and ‘Winnie’ in a white dress (Philisa Sibeko) with a delicately barbed lyric informing us that Mandela’s hearts-and-minds campaign also embraced serial womanising (full marks to Williams for eschewing hagiography).
From here on the show doesn’t put a foot wrong in its inspirational journey towards liberation. Peter Louis van Dijk’s score for Act Three recalls John Adams’s music in its graceful concentration of focus, while Mandela Three (Aubrey Lodewyk) has a lovely radiance of tone. On this showing, CTO’s forthcoming ‘Porgy and Bess’ should be a knock-out.