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South Africa

 

Cape Town

 

John Allison

 

Can there be such a thing as an ‘authentic' Lost in the Stars? Based on a South African literary classic, written by a German-Jewish composer and premiered in New York, its pedigree takes some unravelling. Having seen only one production of this rarity before (New Sussex Opera's, two decades ago) in which the spoken dialogue took on a British accent, and knowing the work otherwise only from the score and Julius Rudel's American recording, I felt a warm sense of homecoming to encounter it on stage in my native city (November 26) and with all the words ‘correctly' South Africanized-but of course, this is not how the work's creators, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, could ever have imagined it.

 

Weill's last completed work (1949) has suffered years of neglect, unjustly

but not incomprehensibly. His deep humanity drew him to a subject-Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country-which was perhaps an unlikely and unsuitable candidate for musical treatment and whose resonance in segregation-conscious America must have been too painful for many to bear. Today, the novel is sometimes criticized for its optimistic Uncle-Tom-ish view, though that is to overlook its intrinsic literary value and the pathbreaking impact it made in 1948, a dark year in South African history. But it is true that slight hints of condescension could get magnified in a Broadway context, and indeed, when Paton attended the premiere (directed by Rouben Mamoulian, whose credits included the original Porgy, Oklahoma! and Carousel), he was upset with the show-not by Weill's music, which he admired, but because of what had become of his novel in Maxwell Anderson's libretto. As Paton recalled in the second part of his autobiography, Journey Continued, he found it a ‘terrible evening'.

 

Lost in the Stars contains some of Weill's finest numbers, but it is far from his most even score, and after a gripping enough Act 1 it fizzles out dramatically in the second half. It needs a strong production, and cape town opera's first staging of the work (a co-production with the Glimmerglass Festival, where it will be seen this summer) was only intermittently strong. CTO suffered a setback when the originally planned director Francesca Zambello withdrew due to overwork and sent the American Tazewell Thompson in her place. His collaboration with the South African choreographer Sibonakaliso Ndaba resulted in some surprisingly self-conscious movement, and a feeble opening number (‘The Hills of Ixopo'), but elsewhere the shuffling rhythms of the chorus ‘Train to Johannesburg' were very well realized. Here on a largely bare stage, the chorus got into a train-like line, with more space left around the white passengers to evoke their comfortably segregated compartments. CTO's outstanding chorus shone in this clever number, which feels like the crowded, claustrophobic counterpart to Villa-Lobos's jungle railway idyll, Trenzinho Caipira. Michael Mitchell's simple, effective set, with its corrugated iron sides, worked flexibly, and the township shabeen scene looked authentic. Equally convincing were the liberal white characters on the other side of the tracks-and the not so liberal James Jarvis, already in conflict with his equality-advocating son and whose entrenchment deepens when that son is murdered by Absalom Kumalo in a bungled burglary. Only after Absalom is convicted and hanged is Jarvis movingly reconciled with Absalom's father, the Anglican pastor Stephen Kumalo; the two men are united in both grief and hope. For all the unevenness of the work and its production, this is a piece on which CTO should stamp its mark and which it should develop for touring. It could become a calling-card alongside such shows as the Porgy and Mandela Trilogy the company will perform in the UK this summer.

 

CTO fielded a large and fine cast. Thami Mbongo was heartbreaking as Absalom, the simple country boy led astray in the big city. Nonhlanhla Yende gave a lovely, touching performance as his pregnant girlfriend Irina, and her two memorable numbers, ‘Stay well' and ‘Trouble man', disclosed a potent soprano. Patrick Tikolo brought vocal gravitas to the old-fashioned Stephen Kumalo, bearing the ‘white man's dog' accusations with dignity (the role was created by Todd Duncan, no less). Other outstanding performances came from Gloria Bosman, raunchy in the shabeen entertainer Linda's ‘Who'll buy?', Graham Weir as James Jarvis, and Tshepo Moagi as the firm-voiced Leader, a narrative role. At the helm of an excellent band, Albert Horne conducted with taut, idiomatic verve.

Wexford Festival 2014
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine