For the uninitiated, a night at the opera can be an intimidating prospect. This might well remain the case even with an accessible entry point; a biographical piece about one of the greatest and most respected international statesmen in modern history. For its creators, there’s the added challenge of squeezing such a rich story – familiar to many – into two hours.
‘The Mandela Trilogy’ (currently touring the UK) is ambitious by any standards. It can only therefore be a boon that no less than two production companies – from countries renowned for their musical prowess – are involved: The Cape Town Opera and the Wales Millennium Centre. In this instance good things come in twos. Performed in both English and Xhosa, the Trilogy boasts two composers, each with diverse musical styles. Peter Louis van Dijk is responsible for the traditionally classical Acts 1 and 3 and Mike Campbell takes care of the Jazz, African-Folk and Popular music-influenced Act 2. With a mostly Caucasian creative team and majority African cast and ensemble, the production reflects the progress the Rainbow Nation has made in integrating the arts. There is still some way to go however, judging from the predominantly European Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Trilogy takes mercifully few liberties with the various source material, including Mandela’s celebrated memoir ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’. The opera is joyful in tone but never attenuates the tragic indignity of the Apartheid regime. And as much as the piece honours its hero, Nelson’s failings as a husband and father – particularly his infidelity – are not conveniently side-lined.
The production team are resourceful in their use of the Southbank Centre’s compact space; a much easier task now that, according to director Michael Williams, the show is smaller in scale than when it was first performed. With the Orchestra taking up half the Royal Festival Hall stage, the cast still stride and high kick their way enthusiastically within these confines. Behind them is a large screen displaying song lyrics, scenery and newsreels.
Whereas the scaling down of the production might be advantageous to the modest set design, it could also explain some of the unfortunate omissions from the narrative. There is no mention, for example, of the role played by Mandela’s comrades; significant but frequently overlooked anti-apartheid activists such as Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.
The most moving scenes are to be found in Campbell’s inspired second act. In particular, the acappella duets between imposing, soulful baritone Peace Nzirawa (Mandela 2) and his trio of female co-stars Pumza Mxinwa (Evelyn: Wife Number One), Candida Mosoma (Dolly: Mistress) and Siphamandla Yakupa (Winnie: Famous Wife Number Two).
The gripping second and third act signal a gear shift with Mandela’s sheltered and comparatively privileged existence behind him and long, painful years of struggle ahead.
Yet the ‘Mandela Trilogy’ never loses its triumphant spirit, even during the sobering moments. In addition to Van Dijk and Campbell’s vibrant scores, the celebratory air could come from knowing that the story ends in hard-won victory. Either way, this jubilant oeuvre is a befitting tribute to a spectacularly eventful life.
Directed by Michael Williams
Composed by Mike Campbell and Peter Louis van Dijk
Conductor: Tim Murray/Alexander Fokkens
Associate Director: Alan Swerdlow
Stage Design: Michael Mitchell
Chorus Master: Marvin Kernelle
Choreography: Sibonakaliso Ndaba
Costume: Rabia Cloete & Nasreen Nasiep
Lusindiso Dubula – Praise Singer
Derrick Ellis – Whiteman/Policeman
Adrian Galley – Huddlestone
Thato Machona – Mandela 1
Mthunzi Mbombela – Journalist
Mandisinde Mbuyazwe – Chief
Tina Mene – Mother
Mandla Mndebele – Mandela 3
Candida Mosoma – Dolly
Lukhanyo Moyake – Justice
Pumza Mxinwa – Evelyn
Peace Nzirawa – Mandela 2
Niel Roux – Guard
Siphamandla Yakupa - Winnie