Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) musical magic enchanted audiences at The Market Theatre tonight. He was a Catholic priest best known as a composer and musician. He is the person who made the transition between Renaissance music with its polyphony and Baroque music with its distinctive basso continuo.
Umculo is a Xhosa word meaning both art music and reconciliation. Headed by Shirley Apthorp, and inspired by El Sistema in Venezuela, Umculo, is a musical development company founded in 2010 to help young South Africans use their choral singing as creative expression. Lamento is their latest project, a musical piece about the stories that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Lamento had its Johannesburg premiere on 3 November 2016 at The Market Theatre, in one of Johannesburg’s oldest building, and for the 40th anniversary year of the world renowned theatre. It is fitting for the John Kani stage has played host to hundreds of South African stories of pain, suffering and hope over the years.
Lamento is an eighty minute all Monteverdi patchwork pastiche opera in seven distinct and unlinked scenes (well, the scenes are more stories than scenes as we know them, and they sometimes have two or three parts) directed by early music opera specialist, Kobie van Rensburg, a South African now residing in Germany. It is sung in the original Italian with English and Zulu surtitles (the latter should not be remarkable in 2016, but it is). It works extremely well as the original madrigals and operatic bits were often rich with sub-texts relevant to the politics of the seventeenth century.
There is a Prologue entitled Resistance and Resentment. Scene 1a is The Riot Police – a Ridicule in which three young riot squad police who eventually shoot a child. Scene 1b is The Aftermath at the funeral. Scene 2 is The bishop, the prisoner’s wife and the soccer player. Scene 3 is Braai the beloved country/Vlakplaas-folio. Vlakplaas is a farm outside Pretoria where the secret police had braais after their “operations”. Scene 4 entitled “The Lovers” looks at love across the colour bar. Scene 5a The Prisoners, 5b Prisoner and guard, victim a nd perpetrator – a symbiosis, Scene 5c Despair at home, Scene 5d John Vorster Square “Suicide”. It speaks about the infamous “detention without trial”. Scene 6a I am black/blonde and beautiful, what the hell to I care, 6b Fat cats. showers and shady arms deals, 6c Drowning the past. These all speak of the selfishness of the entitled. The final Scene 7 uses the music of Tancredi e Clorinda to illustrate How blind can we be? #Violence must fall.
The opera pastiche makes extensive use of blue screen technology and projected images. It has its strengths and weaknesses. I found the action all over the place and frenetically busy because of it, but it was beautifully used and necessary to create the desired effect. There was never a dull moment.
Lamento uses 5 opera singers, with an extra tenor alternating between shows. Nick de Jager and Bongani Mtombeni were the tenors for opening night, and Nick de Jager and Sibusiso Simelane will be the tenors tomorrow night. The bass is Ronald Paseka and the two sopranos are Elsabe Richter and Nombuso Ndlandla. The music is exquisite, and the hour and twenty minutes of Monteverdi’s oevre is soothing to the soul in the peculiar way that Baroque music is – a welcome and not distracting contrast to the ugly realities unfolding in the stories between us.
The ensemble of early music specialists found John Reid Coulter on harpsichord, Waldo Luc Alexander and Jonathan Meyer on violin, Tessa Olivier on viola, Berthine van Schoor on cello and Uwe Grosser on chittarone. A chittarone is a Baroque guitar, for everyone but the three people who have actually heard of that. One of the more amusing moments is the use of braai forks as a music instrument in Scene 3.
The lighting is by Michael Maxwell who takes us through the transitions without ever jarring on our nerves. Mercifully no blackouts between the seven scenes – Maxwell is too skilled for a simple trick like that.. Between Shirley Apthorp and Kobie van Rensburg the Umculo team accessed support from an impressive list of South African musicians including Sandile Mabaso, Jill Richards, Sophia Welz, Marcus Wyatt and many more. It is a reminder that quality like this is never the work of just one person, but a collaborative effort of many. A heartwarming story in itself.
All round this was fascinating, beautifully crafted, delightfully executed performance and I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. It is at The Market Theatre for another three performances only, on 4, 5 and 6 November 2016.