The premise for last night’s opera was most promising: a modern day hero’s remarkable and eventful life set to song, music and dance. Produced by the Cape Town Opera, the cast of over 60 South African performers delivered an entertaining, highly energetic show about South Africa’s most famous man.

Mandla Mndebele (Mandela 3) and Siphamandla Yakupa (Winnie) © John Snelling
Mandla Mndebele (Mandela 3) and Siphamandla Yakupa (Winnie)
© John Snelling
Crossing freely between the genres of contemporary opera and musical the music of The Mandela Trilogy was composed by Peter Louis Van Dijk and Mike Campbell with Michael Williams as librettist. While the title gave the clue that this work focussed on three distinct periods in Mandela’s life (boy, lawyer, old man), Williams’ libretto didn’t succeed in escaping the pull of the linear narrative, resulting in a lack of an overarching dramatic tension. What was much more satisfying was the way in which Williams (who directed as well) managed to bring many of the complexities of the protagonist’s character to the fore as it evolved throughout the opera. However, the third act's climaxes (the courtroom and his eventual release) fell flat as the action felt hurried in order to fit in all the events of this nonagenarian. The music too lacked an overall cohesion, a not unsurprising result of having two composers involved. At times, the music felt like a pastiche (particularly the Xhosa songs), while the change in Act II to the jazz musical was abrupt and not hugely convincing.

The simple set by Michael Mitchell was effective and versatile. The opening scene in the prison cell was cast in a dark, bleak light while Mandela sat in a beacon of saintly white light while the stairs upstage acted as an exit to prison and an entrance to his tribal life in Mvezo. Both the Odin Cinema and the dance club of the second act conjured up vividly 1950s life in Sophiatown. The backdrop of stills and videos of the South Africa in which Mandela grew up in were more a distraction than a helpful prop. The choreography of Sibonikalise Ndaba in the first two acts was particularly impressive which featured energetic traditional dances, lissom jazz-steps and not a little gymnastic gyrating and jumping about the stage from the Cape Town chorus.

Thato Machona (Mandela 1) © John Snelling
Thato Machona (Mandela 1)
© John Snelling

The three Mandelas gave depth to their character, each one portraying a different side to the great man: the courage and pride of the youth; the philandering politician of the middle man; the nobility and regret of the old Mandela. The work opens with the elderly Mandela, Mandla Mndebele, in prison who sang of freedom in a sonorous, rich bass voice. Mndebele captured the anguish perfectly in Act III as he wondered if sacrificing his family for politics was worth it. Mandela the youth, Thato Machona, sang in a pleasing voice and demonstrated an abundant supply of energy in his initiation ceremony. The middle Mandela played by Peace Nzirawa oozed charm and oomph throughout Act II though his singing was the least convincing of the three both in terms of timbre and projection.

The women in Mandela’s life were all thoroughly impressive in entirely different ways. There was pathos throbbing in the mother’s voice as she struggled to let go of her son, while Dolly (Candida Mosoma) as his lover stole the show in act II with her smoky, cabaret voice redolent with seduction and promise. Her acting was every bit as convincing as her singing as she really touched the audience with her poignant rendition of “Meadowlands”. Mandela’s first wife Evelyn (Pumza Mxinwa) showed that though she may have lost her hold over husband she could certainly touch us as she realised that “winning hearts and minds” was more important to him than she was. There was a convincing ingénue quality to Siphamandla Yakupa’s Winnie (wife 2) as she bubbled with enthusiasm for what she hopes the future will hold for her and Mandela.

The cast of <i>Mandela Trilogy</i> © John Snelling
The cast of Mandela Trilogy
© John Snelling

The Chorus of Cape Town Opera provided a strong backing from start to finish. Singing with an elemental energy they dispatched Xhosa traditional song and jazz number with equal gusto. It was heart-warming to see the predominantly black-cast sing with such obvious fervour the production’s anti-apartheid message, a message that has only been realised within the last twenty years.

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra provided a sharp, rhythmically driven performance under the batton of Tim Murray. The winds were particularly impressive with the diversity of styles ably dispatched. Early on in the first Act, it seemed as if the orchestra was at risk of drowning out some of the singers, but gradually Murray got a hand on the theatre’s acoustics and toned down the initial enthusiasm of the orchestra. All in all, The Mandela Trilogy had many very enjoyable moments; just a pity that the excellent individual parts did not make a coherent whole.