Michael Hankinson

Princess Magogo Opera in Chicago

13.09.2014 Article

IN REVIEW CHICAGO — Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, Ravinia/African Renaissance Opera Productions, 6/5/04

IN REVIEW - CHICAGO — Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, Ravinia/African Renaissance Opera Productions, 6/5/04

September 2004 , vol 69 , no.3

Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, South Africa’s first Zulu-language indigenous opera, generated a great deal of interest upon the broadcast of its initial mounting by Opera Africa in 2002. Although a production was planned for the U.S., the project regrettably drowned in a morass of contractual legalities. It fell to Ravinia to pick up the cause, and the Festival has done so with distinction, offering the North American premiere of Khumalo’s opera in a semi-staged presentation by African Renaissance Opera Productions, with artistic direction by Themi Ventura and designs by Andrew Verster (seen June 5).

Constance Magogo kaDinuzulu, daughter of King Dinuzulu, was an extraordinary woman and a celebrated singer/composer — South Africa’s idolized “songbird,” who became a keeper of Zulu culture during a frighteningly turbulent period in the history of her people. The opera unfolds as a series of flashbacks envisioned by Magogo on her deathbed, reviewing a life of sacrifice and dedication to Zulu national affairs, before being welcomed “home” by the ancestors who have passed on before her.

The ultimate glory of the work lies in the intriguing harmonic textures in the score, nicely rendered at Ravinia by the Chicago Sinfonietta under the sensitive direction of conductor–orchestrator Michael Hankinson. Utilizing the inherent tonality of the Zulu language as his inspirational source, Khumalo has created a piece that, though of a modern Western idiom, resonates with the emotionality of traditional African music, interweaving indigenous folk tunes, as well as four songs of Magogo’s own composition into its musical fabric. This pastiche of influence does not always blend perfectly — in some moments the simpler accompaniment of the vocal line by African folk instruments proved more straightforwardly effective. Even so, the orchestral writing, for brass and strings in particular, is quite beautiful, and there is imaginative use of percussion, notably the xylophone, to evoke a cultural ambiance.

Vocal honors were taken by the marvelous African Renaissance Opera Chorus. The variety of aural experiences provided by this ensemble was astonishing, viscerally exciting in the battle sequences for the men and meltingly poignant in the women’s cooing of welcome at the birth of the infant princess. Solo work was somewhat variable. As the title character, Sibongile Khumalo displayed an arresting mezzo of impressive range (the historical Magogo reportedly commanded three octaves) and was affectively memorable in her Act II serenade to her lover, richly vocalized by baritone Peter Mcebi. Tenors Given Mabena as King Solomon and Stefan Louw as the persecutory British officer Duncan both proved effective, the latter’s character receiving a round of boos during the curtain calls, to the obvious amusement of the company onstage. King Dinuzulu and Prime Minister Mankulumana were nobly, if a bit unevenly, intoned by Fikile Mvinjelwa and Themba Mkhwani respectively. Soprano Nonhlanhla Mthimkhulu voiced Queen Silomo’s difficult music, her vocal line approaching coloratura. The opera’s librettist, Themba Msimang, performed the declamatory role of the Praise Singer with commitment and searing individuality.

The hit of the evening, however, was Bongani Zulu’s wonderful choreography. Extended sequences of Shembe and Zulu dance, framed by projections of African imagery and dazzlingly colorful in Verster’s traditional costumes, engendered an infectious enthusiasm throughout the capacity house and undoubtedly helped inspire the audience to its own feet for a final standing ovation. One cannot help but imagine that Magogo kaDinuzulu herself, should she have been watching from some place mysterious and inaccessible to us, would have beamed with quiet pride at the powerful artistic creation her spirit has inspired. _


Send feedback to HYPERLINK ""Opera News


Log in to post a comment