PRESS: Cape Town Opera Puccini Extravaganza!

Cape Town Opera

As this challenge-fraught year of 2021 nears its end, and some respite is afforded the beleaguered performing arts in the wake of the Covid pandemic, Cape Town Opera will gladden the hearts of opera-lovers with two fully-staged productions of works by Puccini in November.

A judicious blend of the well-known and the less familiar (to wit, La bohème and La rondine) will be presented at Artscape Theatre, an appropriate venue for masterpieces in which intimacy rather than spectacle is key. La bohème, directed by Magdalene Minnaar and utilising a small but hugely effective chamber orchestration, has already enjoyed a rousing reception during its recent tour of the Eastern Cape and Klein Karoo. La rondine, with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra under Marvin Kernelle, has been entrusted to Christine Crouse's direction and is scheduled to start rehearsals from mid-October. The two operas have more features in common than might be expected, given that the latter was originally more akin to operetta. Their female leads are equally vulnerable due to their need for love, fulfilment and a sense of direction, none of which comes their way. Both works are stamped with Puccini's signature amalgam of poignancy and comic relief, and both explore the complexities of romance in a specific social milieu. Both were originally set in Paris, although La rondine also takes us to the French Riviera at one point in the action. Directors Minnaar and Crouse are both forthcoming about their enthusiasm for these operas. Says the former: "I'm not a fan of Puccini per se, but in La bohème, the perfect symbiosis of music and words gives it an organic cohesion that is amazing." Crouse recalls, "I grew up with La bohème and Madama Butterfly, in which my mother sang the lead." (Crouse's mother being the celebrated diva Nellie du Toit). "I also love Turandot...like those operas, La rondine, though less well-known, has exquisite music - and it is very charming." common denominator in their approach to directing Puccini's work is an awareness of the need for verisimilitude. Minnaar comments that "La bohème has a relatable storyline told with all the attention to detail you usually find only in films...the characters are paramount, so vibrant." For Crouse, making the story "real" is essential "so the audience can relate to characters and situations. There are shades of Downton Abbey in this tale of love in the cosmopolitan Paris of the 1920s. Not for nothing are those pleasure-seeking, directionless people of the post-WW1 era referred to as 'the lost generation'." Like Minnaar, Crouse feels that the authenticity of the opera's personae is vital to its success, so she invites cast members to contribute their views on interpretation rather than imposing her own: "They must invest personally in their portrayals for them to be convincing. Furthermore, a major challenge of La rondine is to make its dénouement credible - the luminously happy story has an ambiguous ending that needs justification, so again, I encourage input from the cast for Act 3." This democratic style of direction mirrors that of Minnaar, who describes her production of La bohème as "a team effort". Crouse likewise characterizes her work with her artists as "teamwork which enables us to bounce ideas off one another". She sums up the process as steady growth and evolution of ideas, adding that when all else fails, one should simply "trust the music", advice she received from her mentor Angelo Gobbato when she was a fledgling director. She currently finds inspiration in the title of a poem by Gertrude Stein, "A Rose is a Rose", to enrich the concept behind this production: "It's the idea of a rose going nowhere like the heroine of La rondine, a metaphor for the life of the 1920s - beautiful, exciting, full of potential, but tinged with pathos..." Now, 100 years later, the mindset of that generation resonates with contemporary audiences as they, too, are picking up their lives once more in the aftermath of a pandemic worse than the Spanish 'Flu of 1918. And seeking direction.

- Beverley Brommert

Dates: La rondine: 16, 18 and 20 November Click here to book for La rondine.

La bohème: 25, 27 and 28 November Click here to book for La bohème. Venue: Artscape Theatre