By BRUCE DENNILL
Cantiamo – Mzansi Opera Celebration / Artistic producer: Marcus Tebogo Desando / Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein
Whatever is happening on theatre stages for the next couple of months will have to contend with the novelty of being back in a building that – if you are passionate about the arts – is riddled with the treasured memories of productions past and the eager expectation of what might soon be again. Joburg Theatre must be commended on their careful application of the COVID-19 restrictions and regulations required to stage a show now – down to each audience member keeping the pen they sign in with as they enter the foyer – as this provides a feeling of relative security for sensible audience members who want to support artists and venues without putting themselves at undue risk.
Emerging from behind a brand new curtain (just one of the investments the theatre has been making during lockdown, suggesting a positive vision for a post-pandemic future), the cast of Cantiamo (a fitting title, translating as “Now let us sing together” from the Italian) manage to avoid grinning like goofy schoolkids at the thrill of being back in the spotlight, bringing substantial ardour to their performances – solos and duets alike and quickly moving past a touch of early pitchiness that can likely be put down to
The first half of the programme includes a number of well-known pieces from opera heavyweights Mozart and Verdi, among others, with bass-baritone Thesele Kemane’s rendition of the former’s Non Pui Andra from Le Nozze Di Figaro being an early highlight. Nonhlanhla Yende Mitirara, having bravely stepped in for an ailing Kelebogile Besong on the day of the first performance combines expressive body movements with her nuanced singing of Gaetano Donizetti’s O Mio Ferando from La Favorita and fellow soprano Kimmy Skota handles the heft of Vincenzo Bellini’s Oh Rendetemi…Qui Lavoce from I Puritani with aplomb.
The second half of the show introduces a number of works by South African composers, immediately underlining the flexibility of opera as a medium for communicating different perspectives in different languages, and Phenye Modiane’s take on Ungabe Usangikhalela from Phelelani Mnomiya’s Ziyankomo And The Forbidden Fruit is arguably the tenor’s best moment in the show.
The last four songs see a dynamic spike as the soloists are joined by the Vivacious Sounds choir, singing three South African works – Wa Muhle Umzansi Afrika, Madiba and Nkuke, as well as Verdi’s Brindisi – all with infectious energy that ends the evening on a high.
Accompaniment for the bulk of the production (the choir have a couple of different pianists for their pieces) is courtesy of Paul Ferreira, whose technical excellence is matched by his sensitivity to the mood and flow of the music, as well as singer-specific phrasing due to confidence or reticence.
Cantiamo is a satisfying, soulful return to a sacred space.