Why an opera? Read Road to Freedom, read any biography of Nelson Mandela and you would probably be more moved than at any moment in the Cape Town Opera production currently playing at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton.
Libretto and music have to complement each other, to add emotion to thought, and it doesn’t happen here. This is a hybrid. The very fact that acts 1 and 3 are written by different composers seems odd in the first place. You are constantly asked to adjust your response to what is happening on stage. Are you light-heartedly enjoying the ‘Pata Pata’ dance song from act 2, only to be required minutes later to be politically responsive to ‘Freedom in our time’, whose lyrics sound more like a party tract than anything you could possibly want to sing? (And yes, one is aware of the power of song as propaganda. But not in this case.)
There is, to be fair, a coherent structure to the production. Act 1 is basically Mandela’s tribal upbringing and his escape from it. The value attached to circumcision and manhood is important but expressing it in such clumpy song lines as ‘Now you have returned from the bush so full of the pride of manhood’ isn’t adding much to the empathy count. It is a relief when Mandela narrates his own story and gets us out of there. There is such a slippage between his tale and the failure of the music to inspire.
Act 2 moves us on to Mandela as a lawyer in Sophiatown and the voice of Mandela in this act, Peace R Nzirawa, is stunning. Now we are more clearly in a swing mood. Different composer, lots of sax, lots of sexy singing – but swing melodies for counter-revolutionary lyrics? ‘We will fight them to the death’ with a lilt in our voices?
What really works as political commentary is the actual newsreel shown as a backdrop for the increasing political activism. This is so much more effective than a somewhat poorly organised Blue Peter placard-waving chorus line.
Act 3 begins on a wonderfully strong note, with the three Mandelas from the three different periods of his life singing powerfully together, but this isn’t maintained. We are soon back to the stilted political libretto and a bizarre telephone conversation with Winnie, from prison, where Nelson holds the receiver six inches away from his ear. We learn that Mandela is no longer the master of his destiny, the captain of his soul … so he takes up roof-top gardening?
The show ends with a full-volume number from the whole company, ‘The time has come’, but the volume doesn’t make for passion. The production doesn’t move one, doesn’t add anything to what we already know about one of the greatest heroes of our time. My sixteen-year-old neighbour, Charlotte, who came with me, felt the same. If you can’t get the young ones on board for a show like this, then you really have a problem.
Future performances: 8 September and 10 September at 2.00 and 7.30, 9 September at 7.30.