The Cape Robyn
Bravo to Cape Town Opera and University of Cape Town Opera School, for staging a sparkling, vibrant and upbeat Così fan tutte at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa. Astounding staging- voice, performance and design. Wow! Overwhelmed to see opera, with an orchestra, during Covid, during lockdown level 1, October 2020, South Africa.
There are two casts. To stage anything live during the pandemic, is a challenge. Artists have been in lockdown since March and the prospect of going on stage, in front of a socially distanced audience, must be exciting but one would imagine, rather nerve wracking. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see hesitation by the singers in a time like this, in this so-called ‘new normal’, with a masked audience in attendance. That is freaky. Well, let me tell you that Cape Town Opera rocks with Così fan tutte. Sure, it is a strange situation. Most of the musicians in the pit (with the exception of the wind instruments) are wearing masks and sitting behind perspex dividers as protectors. With all that these singers are in full throttle.
There tends to be a hushed decorum at the opera with restraint by the audience between acts. On opening night, there was no holding back with hoots and whoohoos and bursts of applause. We have been hearing for months that it would be unlikely for live performance to return to main stream venues in South Africa, until well into 2020 and here we are with opera – sets- orchestra – surreal but wonderful. We are hearing about 2nd waves abroad. The prospect of another wave and lockdown in South Africa is hovering but let us enjoy it, while we can – as safe as possible. A shout-out to the Baxter for enforcing Covid protocols- stickers in the foyer on the floor etc.
Così fan tutte is an inspired choice in a time when we need comedy. The acerbic and witty libretto is laced with digs about the battle between men and women – a binary set-up –but it is fun. Basically, there are a two couples behaving really badly. There is lying and deception and jibes about women being fickle and men only being good for conquest. In the end, they all make up and get hitched.
The company (Cape Town Opera ‘Young Artists’ and singers from the University of Cape Town Opera School) nails it in every regard – voice and characterisation. There are solos and extensive duos and ensemble work- all brilliantly executed. Brittany Smith dazzles as Despina, the so-called servant (that is how she is described in the surtitles) and as the quickie role as the notary. She is delicious as the notary.
Talking of delicious, check out the chocolate guzzling and pampering scene with Despina pampering the coddled lover women, Dorabella (played by Nombulelo Yende) and Fiordiligi (Siphokazi Molteno). This could be at a local spa, right now. One could well imagine this drama – a comedy of lovers – playing out on Tinder and WhatsApp. The staging is timeless but oozes with a sense of being very contemporary – hipsters switching partners and allegiances- always on the look out for the ‘better-deal’. Feeding into Mozart’s playful score, we have the incredible voices by our opera artists and a brilliant rendering of these narcissistic couples. It is a funny opera and with this production, it is sexed up, without being lewd. Watch out as Dispena robes the women in satins. Kudos to director Steven Stead for teasing out the yummy nuances in this wacky story. He is a theatre director who has worked extensively with musical theatre and panto – and opera – and he has cooked up an opulent opera of comedy – during the dark days of the pandemic. We were almost choking with laughter.
Michael Mitchell and Kobus Rossouw have brought together a striking design – set and lighting design and costumes. I was overwhelmed by the detail – oh my -see the Arabian nights gold slippers on the men; colourful cushions, fabric for wedding dresses. The hanging lantern scene is magical. The gazebo wedding set is a something out of a dream – setting scenes of what ‘normal’ could be – after these strange days are over and lavish weddings can take place. There is a tangible sense of lightness and joy to this production. We need that.
I was captivated by the diction of all six artists. These are South Africans, singing in Italian but they enunciate each word. Smith’s notary – every word rolled out. The stand out in terms of diction, for me is Keanan Mitchell. I was fascinated following the surtitles and listening to him give each word – shape- with comedic flourish and verbal clarity. The 27 year old singer is the nephew of the late opera legend, Sidwill Hartman. Mitchell is an UCT opera school student and currently doing his MMus. He brings together voice, character and a vibey Italian. See him on stage in South Africa, before he is nabbed by an international company.
The weekend special, Beverley Brommert
“An exquisite production on all counts” best describes this first post-Covid-19 offering from Cape Town Opera and the UCT Opera School at the Baxter Theatre, where the stage is ideally suited to a work of intimacy rather than spectacle.
Director Steven Stead judiciously balances the antithetical elements of light and shade that often lend a distinctive, thought-provoking ambiguity to Mozart’s works: their subtle interplay is apparent in both the visuals and the moods of Così fan Tutte, in the contrast between sunshine, sparkle and illusion on one hand, and darkness, anguish and disillusionment on the other. This becomes a metaphor for innocence and its loss, a shrewd comment on human frailty.
In Così, everything is manipulated by the cynical aristocrat Don Alfonso, abetted by the streetwise maid Despina. In the hands of this calculating pair, the four young lovers whose journey we follow through the opera are as putty, and despite the obligatory happy ending, one questions whether all is truly sweetness and light at final curtain.
Serene grace and gaping monsters …
Images accompanying the lively overture give an inkling of what lies ahead. They trace an excursion through formal gardens in which the serene grace of antique statues coexists with gaping monsters and depictions of lewd behaviour…
Michael Mitchell’s enchanting sets evoke the lazy elegance of the Edwardian age before WW1 and the Spanish Flu changed that world forever.
Costumes are equally suggestive: the girls in virginal summer white, their latent sensuality only surfacing in private with the bolder shades of their déshabillées; their fiancés off to war in crisp khaki, then extravagantly costumed as exotic Albanians; Alfonso suave, impeccably formal at all times and enigmatic.
As for the performers, Brittany Smith steals the show as Despina, milking her role for all it’s worth. Venal, resentful of privilege and ever-resourceful, she delights both as character and vocalist, injects comedy into the proceedings whenever she appears, and sings with easy confidence.
Her employers, Dorabella (Siphokazi Molteno George) and Fiordiligi (Nombulelo Yende) are neatly differentiated, their personae attacked with engaging authority by both singers. Yende is particularly impressive when emotional rendition is demanded, for instance in her extended aria after nocturnal seduction by Ferrando.
Naive, ardent, and just as flawed as their fiancées, Ferrando (Keanan Mitchell) and Guglielmo (Siphe Kwani) somehow contrive to remain convincing throughout a wildly implausible plot.
Kwani has a commanding stage presence as well as unforced, resonant delivery – both major assets in a male lead. Mitchell’s intelligent grasp of his role provides a useful foil for his fellow lead.
One regrets that Don Alfonso does not appear more often, since Yonwaba Mbo, who fills this role, is blessed with an opulent voice and the thespian talent to give plausibility to his portrayal of a man considerably older than himself.
The baton of Maestro Jeremy Silver marries vocal and instrumental performances with customary energy and commitment, the latter quality imparting a special intensity to all participants in this rewarding production of a masterpiece.”