Mandela Trilogy

The European premiere from Cape Town Opera

Mandela TrilogyCape Town Opera’s visit to the UK got off to a cracking start this Wednesday with the European premiere of The Mandela Trilogy. Founded in 1999, the South African company has in recent years started to make its name internationally, with its 2009 production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess becoming an instant hit. And Cape Town Opera’s close links with the Wales Millennium Centre made it an obvious venue for a first UK airing of this work.

With a libretto by Michael Williams, each of the Mandela Trilogy’s three acts has a different composer. Why? Well, the driving idea was to portray three defining moments in one man's life, the programme notes explain, not to present a continuous narrative. A great opportunity to showcase three composers, but could it hang together in performance?

Allan Stephenson’s 'Qunu Oratorio' forms the opening exploration of Mandela’s early life in the Transkei, framed by scenes from prison. Though well-crafted, and intriguing for its use of traditional Xhosa music, to my ear it lacked a unifying, original voice. For instance, a solo cello depicted Mandela’s loneliness; a shimmer of strings laid it on thick at the line ‘with all my heart’; while the call of ‘Mandela’ in the final number echoed Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. A clever allusion, or just too obvious?

Mandela TrilogyFor the second act, think musical theatre. The scene was Sophiatown, the event the 1950s rising. Mike Campbell’s jazz-infused, West Side Story-esque score vibrantly depicted the political passion and social energy of the black activists, enlivened by spot-on choreography and direction. And, with the appearances of his wife Evelyn (Nozuko Teto), his mistress Dolly (the scene-stealing, rich-voiced Gloria Bosman), and his wife-to-be Winnie (Philisa Sibeko), we saw a less saintly side of Mandela.

Peter Louis van Dijk tackled the long prison years, as well as the Act I Prologue and Interlude, with the only music that could be described as properly operatic, and indebted to Copland and John Adams. Aubrey Lodewyk made a strong Mandela (the role was split between three singers) as this third episode moved towards his eventual freedom. One iconic figure; three composers. This could have been a risky strategy. But it was hard not to be swept up in the exuberance and commitment of Cape Town Opera, the opera's compelling subject matter, and the variety of musical styles. The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera was splendid, assuredly conducted by Albert Horne.