Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Mandela Trilogy; Semiramide

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Mandela Trilogy; Semiramide

Article excerpt

They say that the devil gets all the best tunes, and on the basis of this week's opera-going it would be hard to disagree. Performances by Cape Town Opera and Opera Rara turned their attention on two historical icons: South Africa's anti-apartheid campaigner and president Nelson Mandela, and ancient Assyria's murderous and would-be incestuous queen regent Semiramis. No prizes for guessing who came out on top. When it comes to art, evil takes it nearly every time. Who wouldn't choose The Rake's Progress over The Pilgrim's Progress , Don Giovanni over Don Ottavio, sex over sanctity?

For a good man, Nelson Mandela has inspired a lot of really, really bad art. Just think of the various biopics, the Dean Simon reimagining of the Last Supper with Mandela as a muscular Jesus, even Richard Stone's iconic portrait -- all soft-focus, pastel idealism. Where life is so vivid, so virtuous, it leaves art nowhere to go, a problem that the Mandela Trilogy in all its affirming, essentialising optimism fails to resolve.

A lot has changed since the show first appeared in Cardiff in 2012. Three composers have become two, a sprawling orchestra and cast have shrunk, and dramatically things are a lot tighter. But still the Mandela Trilogy cannot make up its mind what it is. Mike Campbell's jazz- and rock-infused Act II clearly wants it to be Mandela: The Musical -- South Africa's answer to Evita -- and judging by the audience response, this would be a winner. But Peter Louis van Dijk's framing Acts I and III aspire to something altogether loftier: a translation of the Mandela story into the musical tropes and textures of western art music.

To ignore the irresistible swing of Sophiatown jazz or the thrilling energy of indigenous Xhosa music for something so blandly efficient -- an inoffensive fusion of sub-Copland string writing and Philip Glass ostinati, whose big brass climaxes all sound like the theme tune to an Aaron Sorkin series -- is criminal. Why borrow someone else's musical language when your own says it best? It's telling that the moments where this show really works -- the a capella female chorus in Act III; the slinky arrangement of Miriam Makeba's 1957 hit 'Pata Pata' -- are those most straightforwardly South African.

Performances are almost as mixed as the material itself. At one end you have the blissful excellence of the Cape Town Philharmonic, 12 ensemble and Cape Town Opera's chorus (the latter all the more impressive given the current, widely reported conflict between singers and management over a question of financial exploitation of black singers), while at the other principals defeated by the score's bewildering range of technical demands and director Michael Williams's mawkish text. …

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