Whatever I was expecting from the European première of Mandela Trilogy, a musical tribute to the life of the iconic Nelson Mandela, it certainly wasn’t humour. Yet it is to writer and director Michael Williams’ credit that he has managed to convey what could have been extremely tense and serious subject matter with vibrancy and flair. The question remains, however, whether the production really allowed the story the depth and decorum it deserved. Through selected scenes of Mandela’s life arranged in three acts – from his home in the Transkei in the 1930s, to 1950s Sophiatown, to his extended imprisonment and eventual freedom – we are able to glimpse the man behind the myth. Here, we see Mandela the son, the husband, the human, complete with flaws, and for this, Williams can only be praised.

It is perhaps to be expected that an opera about such a turbulent period in history would combine an eclectic array of musical styles. Yet, initially, I found the extreme juxtapositions of oratorio with musical theatre and finally John Adams-esque opera disorientating. This was not what I was expecting from contemporary opera. On reflection, the decision to commission three different composers for each of the three acts is understandable – the intention is to portray the era and feel of these distinct periods in Mandela’s life through the music; hence the vastly contrasting musical styles.

Personally, I found Allan Stephenson’s orchestrations of traditional Xhosa songs a little disappointing, even unsettling. Here the production is meant to be proudly South African and although the all-South African cast appear on stage in traditional costume singing entirely in Xhosa, the music felt like a watered-down version of this colourful culture. I felt that Xhosa song had been tamed here to fit more neatly into a Western framework and this raised questions for me given the anti-apartheid ‘We Are One’ message of the production. Siphamandla Yakupa (Mandela’s mother) and Thato Machona (Mandela 1) were particularly impressive.

Mike Campbell’s ‘jazz musical’ of the second act really highlighted the versatility of both the cast and the Welsh National Opera orchestra. The incredible set designs by Michael Mitchell transported us from Odin cinema, to a dance club, and later to Mandela’s prison cell, and really served to make this production at least as visually exciting as it was aurally. In this act, the cast were able to display their diverse skills, dancing energetically to gymnastic choreography by Sibonakaliso Ndaba while still engaging fully with the audience. Gloria Bosman as Dolly (one of Mandela’s mistresses) stole the show with her flawless performance, her incredibly moving solo ‘Meadowlands’ actually bringing a tear to my eye. Aubrey Poo’s charismatic performance as Mandela 2 and his warm, clear voice make him perfectly suited to the role.

Peter Louis van Dijk’s third act, starring Aubrey Lodewyk as Mandela 3, came closest to my expectations for contemporary opera, but for the audience seemed a little flat after the excitement of the second act. The dramatic conclusion with all three Mandelas singing together worked well, displaying a well-balanced marriage of three equally powerful but very different voices. This worked better than the trio of Mandela’s lovers had in the previous act where the voices seemed less well matched – a point which forms my only criticism of the entire performance.

Following a dazzling performance by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, conducted by Albert Horne, and an extremely impressive performance by Cape Town Opera, the biggest round of applause of the night was reserved for Nelson Mandela himself, showing that despite the lack of proselytising throughout the show, the figure of Mandela as a hero and his anti-apartheid message is alive in the performers’ and audiences’ hearts. Could anyone else perform this show so well? To Cape Town Opera this production means something, and that shows. It is certainly refreshing to see a cast of predominantly black opera singers, particularly in light of how relatively recently they have been allowed to perform in South Africa.

The diversity of musical styles in this production means there is something for everyone. It manages to be educational as well as entertaining and for that reason, it’s a show that everyone should go and see. Mandela Trilogy may not have been what I was expecting from contemporary opera; it wasn’t dissonant and angular, but warm and inviting. But that just goes to show that sometimes what you don’t expect turns out just fine.