WINNIE, THE OPERA

STAGE DIRECTOR: Shirley Jo Finney

CONDUCTOR: Jonas Alber, with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra

CAST: Tsakane Maswanganyi, Otto Maidi, Linda Zitha, Pierre du Toit, Monika Voysey, Mlamli Lalapantsi, Yollandi Nortjie

SET DESIGN: Peter Harrison

COSTUMES: Penny Simpson

LIGHTING DESIGN: Declan Randall

SOUND DESIGN: Richard Smith

VENUE: Opera, State Theatre, Pretoria

FINAL PERFORMANCE: Tuesday, May 3

RATING: ***

South African-born Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s Winnie, the Opera highlights the life one of the most controversial women in our recent history: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, also affectionately known as “Mother of the nation”.

It is seldom that a composer chooses to create an opera based on the life of a living person. Since Ndodana-Breen is also one of the producers of this premier production of his own work, it must have been a conscious choice.

Biography is a narrative of a person’s life. Yet, at the best of times it’s problematic to trans-form this into a stirring, and more specifically, into an organic drama with many dimensions and layers, which is at the same time artistically a truly operatic entity.

One cannot bypass the art form’s diverse conventions which have been cultivated over a period of nearly five centuries.

Over that time many composers renewed the opera as a genre, but all of them kept to the basic principle, namely that it should grip audiences by the gut.

Externals do not achieve this. Inner emotions to which we all can relate have the greatest poten-tial to take you on that journey.

Winnie, the Opera shows us what most of us already know, while the libretto, co-written by the producers Mfundi Vundla and Warren Wilensky, makes us fully aware of the detailed history, but what we really wanted is “herstory”, her deepest emo-tions from an early age shaping her life.

Visually, this is a beautiful, atmospheric production which must have been costly to stage.

Just about all the singers were on top form – often inspiringly so – while the level of their drama-tic insights into each of their characters reflected high involve-ment.

The American director Shirley Jo Finney also has an astute filmic eye, resulting in realistic and fully believable scenes, like the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC) one in Act Two, set in Orlando West, Soweto, during the 1980s.

Tsakane Maswanganyi showed us how perfectly a title role can be filled. With her great range of vocal timbres, which flow with lyrical ease, she made the most of this neverending challenge.

Too much is pure dialogue set to music instead of lyrics in verse, which could elevate the earthiness to give the character more humanity, and in vocal terms, more “body”.

Diverse and vital vocal and dramatic characterisation came from Otto Maidi in the role of Winnie’s father, Columbus, while Linda Zitha conveyed convincing humanity in the role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Pierre du Toit managed not to become a stereotype as Major Theunis Swanepoel, Winnie’s prison interrogator, who is also present in many of the other scenes. Vocally, he was spot-on as well.

Outstanding among the other characters was Yollandi Nortjie as Zindzi, Winnie’s daughter.

She has a fresh presence on stage and a voice to equal it.

In this multimedia production, the documentary footage was relevant and, as an introduction to Act II, atmospheric.

Real drama and conflict felt undernourished – especially in the light of the many themes which could have been further developed.

There were various moments where it was achieved, as in the earlier TRC hearings, where the mother of Stompie Sepei could not contain her mixed feelings of aggression and loss.

Also, the ending of the MUFC-scene had the kind of dramatic tension one craved more of.

Although Jonas Alber conducted very well and evoked all he could from the score, he could not conceal the boring aspects of the writing.

Ndodana-Breen orchestrates adequately, but with too much uniformity in his ideas.

At times the “Mothers of the Missing” vocal octet really shone, but in many ways one was, for long stretches, more seduced by the visual splendour than the music.

It should have been the other way round.