Opera in hell

Gobbato was wearing his other hat as head of the University of Cape Town’s opera school. His presentation, Towards an African Aesthetic for Opera, was his inaugural lecture as full professor. This address detailed the heartening journey a leaner, pared operatic project has made in South Africa over the past 10 years — and its vigorous and buoyant future.

Gobbato’s point about black audiences is crucial.
While admirable work has been done to foster new singers of international calibre, audiences remain largely white — and conservative. Happily, Gobbato noted an upward trend: work with a strong African orientation, such as Brett Bailey’s remarkable version of Verdi’s Macbeth (2001), is luring non-traditional audiences.

It was eye-opening discussing these topics with a genial operatic newcomer to these parts — esteemed tenor Gustavo Porta, Argentinian born-and-trained but now based in Italy, here to sing the title role in Charles Gounod’s Faust, one of two Cape Town Opera productions on this venerable theme currently sharing space at the Artscape Opera House. The other, which opened this week and has a second performance on Friday September 12, is Hector Berlioz’s celebrated, but rarely performed, Le Damnation de Faust, rendered in concert version (that is, the singers merely sing: the music is all the action).

Le Damnation de Faust, which celebrates the bicentenary of Berlioz’s birth, stars the Cape Town Opera Chorus and the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by well-travelled local star Gérard Korsten, with a ravishing bevy of principals. French tenor Laurent Chauvineau sings Faust, mezzo-soprano Violina Anguelov is Marguerite, and one of the coming breed of black singers now exciting international audiences evokes Mephis-topheles: thrilling bass-baritone Abel Moeng, a graduate of the New York’s famed Juilliard School.

In Gounod’s Faust, meanwhile, the genial Porta — whose tenor’s range is a thrilling and finely modulated delight — plays opposite magical local soprano Zanne Stapelberg as wronged Marguerite with bass Gideon Saks, in the creepy part of the devil’s agent, Mephistopheles.

‘It’s not just South Africa — European audiences also prefer traditional works and contemporary opera struggles,” he says. ‘La Scala now includes a ratio of two to eight new works as a way of educating the public.”

Faust (first performed in 1859) is a dearly loved traditional grand opera, which now receives a vigorous shake-up. Director Michael Williams relocates the tale of the fellow who sells his soul to the devil in a contemporary urban milieu, replete with lap dancers, TV game shows and video screens.

Williams, whose previous credits as librettist and director, Gobbato reminded us in his lecture, include innovative new operas Enoch Prophet of God and the ‘jazz opera” Love and Green Onions, has given a vigorous reading. Porta is a plangent and humane Faust — a love-struck puppy in the hands of Saks’s marvellously textured Mephistopheles. It’s said the devil always gets the best tunes, and indeed Saks has a crowd-pleasing ball in this deliciously wicked part.

Peter Cazalet’s set sweeps audiences though a roller coaster of settings intensely pastoral and grittily urban, and the production gives full vein to the blend of lyricism and drama in Gounod’s high-coloured retelling.

The struggle between good and evil is rendered in some ravishing, even grotesque images — lurid Catholic iconography does battle with demonic bric-a-brac. It is a marvellous spectacle, with Porta, Stapelberg (a touch vocally inhibited on opening night) and Saks locked in glorious battle; and the chorus, that great local strength, are in splendid cry with the men most pronounced.

According to Porta, this Faust is a ‘fascinating treatment, and Michael has very cleverly updated [the production]”. He correctly reckons the moral issues get a fresher reading in an updated context — and hopes it will garner wide audiences. ‘Such marvellous voices you have in the chorus! African singers are open-chested. Open, open, open,” he says, pounding a vast barrel chest.

Porta throws light on another of Gobbato’s points: local singers are obliged to go overseas to build careers, because of the paucity of work here. ‘Opera singers today must travel,” he says. ‘You widen experience and deepen your work. I arrived here from Siena; I go from here to Russia. It’s hard on the voice; you must say nothing the day you arrive.”

Porta has a heartening anecdote for local practitioners. ‘I performed Verdi in an open-air theatre, seating 4 000, near Jerusalem,” he recalls. ‘Outside, bombs had been going off all day; for three hours, Arabs and Jews forgot the war in a shared, transforming experience. That is what opera can do!”

Amen to that, I say.

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