Beautiful opera for the common folk

laboheme

LET me hold your tiny frozen hand. Rodolfo (Phenye Modiane) in a tender embrace with Mimi (Khaykazi Madlala). Photograph courtesy Gauteng Opera.

SHE ERUPTS ON stage like a splendid volcano of fierceness and vocality, beauty and attitude as she grabs your attention by its proverbial lapels and doesn’t let go, even when she’s not singing. This is Litho Nqai in the role of Musetta, in this production of Gauteng Opera’s La Bohème. And balanced with the more subdued and more classically genteel yet utterly tragic Mimi (Khayakazi Madlala), magic is made. But it’s magic that doesn’t permeate the whole production.

Indeed while you’re watching, you may be tempted to close your eyes and let yourself sink into the glory of beautiful music making that has been celebrated as such since the end of the 19th century. And you may be correct in that decision, as it would preclude your having to see the crude typos in the surtitles and get confused in crowd scenes while the surtitles trip over themselves and throw meaning to the wind. Closed eyed, you’d also not see the staging and the set, which, replete with what emerges as ornamental electric pink step ladders and a misspelled indication of the tavern’s existence, offers a ham-handed attempt at switching the ethos and geography of early Modernist Paris to that of Johannesburg in 2017. But if you did experience the work shut-eyed, you would miss out on the sheer physical beauty of this cast, and their characterisation, which would be a pity.

Overall, this production of this popular tale of poverty and consumption, creativity and prostitution that describes the texture of Europe of the late 1800s, is the kind of work that may tempt you to go on a foray into the history of opera and to think of the context in which there were seats for the ‘common folk’ of the era – the people who for a couple of shillings could be exposed to the magnificence of the medium, but who had the manners and the proclivity to throw rotten fruit at performances they deemed under par. When the company’s CEO stood on stage just before the opening performance and granted the audience permission blanketly to take photographs with their cell phones and tweet and post during the production, effectively, he opened up the work to the same kind of rabble-based behaviour that detracts from a genuine appreciation of the work itself. And unfortunately, ours is not a city theatre which has designated cell-phone-using seats in a context away from the rest, as the fruit-throwing masses of Europe had.

Sadly, it is when the niceties of a production get compromised – when this type of attention to detail is overlooked – something irreplaceable in the magic of the work is lost. While the competence of the Gauteng Opera cast and the orchestra supporting it, cannot be condemned, the effect of the work on as noble and beautifully designed a stage as that of the Mandela, falls into the realm of community production, which just doesn’t do justice to the history and tradition of Puccini – nor to the history and potency of opera in South Africa.

  • La Bohème is composed by Giacomo Puccini with libretto by Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed by Marcus Desando, it features creative input by Lungile Cindi (set), Simon King (lighting), and is performed by Kagiso Boroko, Kanyiso Kula, Khayakazi Madlala, Tshepo Masuku, Vuyani Mlinde, Phenye Modiane, Solly Motaung, Thabiso Nkabane, Litho Nqai and Chuma Sijeqa in the principle roles and Noluthando Biyana, Thandiwe Dlamini, Amie Hood, Mpho Kgame, Letago Komape, Delisile Kubheka, Leana Leuvennink, Phiwe Makaula, Nomvuyo Manomza, Mbulelo Manzini, Lindokuhle Maso, Kgaugelo Mfene, Siphiwe Mkhatshwa, Carmen Micic, Thabang Modise, Mathews Motsoeneng, Sibongile Mtuyane, Zolila Ngudle, Zita Pretorius, Sifiso Radebe, Andries Sebati, Siyabulela Tofile and Simphiwe Yende, from the Gauteng Opera chorus. Performed by the Gauteng Opera Orchestra, led by Camelia Onea and conducted by Eddie Clayton, it is on at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until July 23. Visit http://www.joburgtheatre.com/la-boheme-info/ or gautengopera.org
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