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The Mandela Trilogy – Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Director: Michael Williams

Music: Alan Stephenson, Mike Campbell &Peter Louis van Dijk

Book &Lyrics: Michael Williams

Reviewer: Emily Pearce


The Mandela Trilogy is a three act new opera, written specifically for the South African company Cape Town Opera, with each part highlighting specific moments in Nelson Mandela’s life and interspersed with almost-narration from Mandela reflecting on his imprisonment. Each act has its own distinct characteristic; both musically and in design. The first act, performed entirely in Xhosa (with surtitles fortunately), is based on Mandela’s upbringing as he realises the social injustices facing his tribe, focusing on African spiritual musical and oratorio in style. The second takes on a jazz musical hall style and is filled with dancing in the clubs of Sophiatown as Mandela’s political power grows, and the third, in full-blown operatic style, narrates his trial and eventual release.

The libretto by Michael Williams (who also directed the piece) is a real labour of love, having been written between 1990 and 2008, and this is shown in all aspects of this passionate and vivacious production. The care of detail lavished in the design and performances to create the atmosphere of the African towns of Transkei and Sophiatown is excellent, creating a truly immersive experience; brilliantly juxtaposed with the sobriety and repressed anger of the prison in the third act.

In Aubrey Lodewy, as the third and most prominent Mandela, Cape Town Opera has a leading man of the highest calibre. The depth and dignity of his performance encapsulates the Mandela known to many, while his glorious voice fully grasps Mandela’s grief and loneliness in the more tender moments. Special commendation must also go to Gloria Bosman whose jazz and gospel voice astounds throughout, and to Mandelas one and two (Thato Mochona and Aubrey Poo respectively) who also give rousing and poignant performances in their portrayal of Mandela at different ages.

Musically, although almost exhaustive in the genres that the opera tries to encapsulate in its three acts, some of the pieces seem to border on pastiche rather than an entirely original musical voice. Moments that are almost too akin to works by John Adams, Gershwin, even Puccini and Tchaikovsky, although often beautiful, tend to divert attention away from the plot, which is a shame as Williams’ libretto is very strong.

Cape Town Opera are one of those rare finds; a company that believes so fiercely and inherently about the performance and story they are communicating that even the sternest of opera critics cannot fail to be moved. This story in particular obviously resonates clearly with the company, and as a result brings the piece to new heights of emotion, humour and verve that very few could hope to emulate; a life enhancing experience.

Runs until 21st June, 2012.

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