the case of Lamento (February 2017, pp. 211-12), selections from Monteverdi’s madrigals and operas were recast as a ‘pastiche opera’ (with Baroque ensemble) to dramatize key episodes in the history of apartheid.
■ Thabiso Masemene and Sarah Suping in ‘Romeo’s Passion’ in Johannesburg
Two years in the making and involving the exceptional talents of Umculo’s Berlinbased stalwarts Robert Lehmeier (the librettist, and a distinguished stage director) and Cathy Milliken (an awardwinning composer with expertise in collaborative creation), Romeo’s Passion is surely the company’s most strikingly original offering to date. The libretto—direct, poetic, never overwritten—is a powerful critique of the crushing consequences of prejudice and discrimination, here figured around attitudes to gay men. In a simple but deeply fraught story about difference, social expectations, shame, individual autonomy and human rights, a young man is caught between having to disappoint his girl, his parents and society, and being true to his feelings by admitting that he really loves, and is loved by, a man; in the end, his father is able to say, ‘You are born black, you are born gay.’ This plays out in a one-hour chamber opera with a fabulous but always accessible modernist score for a cast of five and an instrumental ensemble of three (oboe, violin, piano). Milliken’s music is crisp, strongly lyrical and sometimes inflected by hints of diverse styles, including the musical, the popular, and even Satie. Moving easily and seamlessly between arioso, aria and ensemble (there is a glorious final quintet), the score is generous in its use of recurring melodic motifs that are pithy, dramatically meaningful and instantly memorable. The writing for the instrumental trio is such that the combinations are wonderfully varied and constantly interesting.
Staged on what was clearly a shoestring budget, the performance took place, in the round, in a small, windowless space at the inner-city hillbrow theatre in one of Johannesburg’s, and the country’s, most crowded, run-down and rapidly changing urban areas. Surtitles in English and Zulu were projected onto opposing walls. The set was hardly more than a sofa; but so intimate and immersive was the experience that nothing else was needed. At matinee performances, the audience was made up mostly of black schoolchildren. At the one I attended (September 21), they were clearly deeply engaged, and then wildly vociferous in their appreciation.
The singers were simply world class; some already enjoy international reputations. As the Father, Mlamli Malapantsi was imposing and authoritative, and he combined convincingly with the marvellous Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as the Mother. Thabiso Masemene (the Son) and July Zuma were the young male lovers, and they succeeded in conveying both passion and torment without any loss of vocal refinement. Sarah Suping brought clean, captivatingly honeyed tones to the role of the Young Girl; we will surely be hearing
Opera, December 2018