A Monteverdi potpourri and the power of wow


MY enemy myself: Lamento confronts the nuance that makes perpetrators victims, and victims, perpetrators. Photograph by Graham de Lacey.

IT’S NOT EVERY day that you’re privileged enough to see a staging of 17th century madrigals with real Baroque instruments played on a major Johannesburg stage. It’s also not every day that you get to see Monteverdi translated into isiZulu in the surtitles, with the timelessness of his tales woven into current South African narrative. Lamento, created by Kobie van Rensburg calls itself a pastiche in the self-consciously postmodern understanding of the term: blending new animation technology with a genuine respect for the authentic Monteverdi nuances, it’s an astoundingly beautiful experience.

In 2007, Philip Miller staged his extraordinary ReWind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape And Testimony. While Miller’s work remains in a category of its own in terms of the uniqueness of the perspective and the fresh boldness in his complicated yet clear weaving together of music values and political narrative, there’s a resonance here with Lamento. Divided into seven discrete scenes, the story it tells is tragic and heroic, political and prescient, balanced by diverse perspectives, but in truth, it becomes less of a concern to you in the audience, than the sheer beauty of the piece. This has, primarily, to do with the quality of the musical performances of the singers and instrumentalists dovetailed with the technological set.

The experience of hearing the beguilingly simple music language of Monteverdi, supported as it is with but six instruments and five performers onstage, is in itself enough to raise goosebumps. Sandwich it into an ensemble that involves blue screen technology and a whole array of tricks and idiosyncrasies and you get swept away on many currents simultaneously.

And that richness of diversity is the work’s popular selling point – not everyone loves the idea of  17th century proto-opera in Italian – but it is also, in a sense, its weakness: so much is happening at the same time, all the time, that you find yourself focusing on the music and allowing everything else to slip into lesser definition. So the narrative gets lost. The technology begins to feel a little gimmicky at times. And the humour feels forced. That is, until it’s brought to life again by the singers, who inject that spark of relevance and fire into this incredibly fine ancient music, thus becoming the secret ingredient which forces you to overlook flaws with a forgiving, nay, an adoring, eye.

Touching on everything from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Soweto Uprisings, Sharpeville, Vlakplaas and #FeesMustFall, it has a spot of Nkandla and a reference to selfies in it. On a level, when you contemplate the immensity it reaches and touches in confronting the sadness of violent loss in a political context, the soul of the work begs for it to be more abstract and more simple, and again, as these thoughts are articulated in your head, it is the singing voices which shift your perspectives away in a swathe of call and response songs.

If you think of The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo, performed in Johannesburg in 2008 under the auspices of Isango Portobello, something similar happened there too. The work was an isiZulu translation of Mozart’s eponymous opera. Rather than a traditional western orchestra, it featured African musical instruments and African solutions to the opera’s drama. It was utterly magical, but it seemed to be bending over backwards in its attempts to pull out all the stops and redress every historical imbalance you can think of. And this conflation of magic and trying so hard to showcase everything possible is Lamento’s slight stumbling block.

See it for the novelty it offers, and while you’re wowing at the modern technology, you will quietly fall completely in love with Monteverdi. And the rest becomes incidental.

  • Lamento is written and directed by Kobie van Rensburg based on scenic madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi. Featuring design by Kobie van Rensburg (video, stage and set) and Michael Maxwell (lighting), it is performed by Nick de Jager (tenor), Bongani Mthombeni (tenor), Nombuso Ndlandla (soprano), Ronald Paseka (bass) Elsabé Richter (soprano) Sibusiso Simelane (tenor) and accompanied by the Lamento Ensemble: John Reid Coulter (harpsichord/organ), Waldo Luc Alexander and Jonathan Meyer (violins), Tessa Olivier and Frederike Scholtz (violas), Berthine van Schoor (cello) and Uwe Grosser (chittarone/Baroque guitar), at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 6. Visit or call 011 832 1641.

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