CTO’s “Africanised” operetta a blast from start to finish

CTO’s “Africanised” operetta a blast from start to finish

SHOW: The Merry Widow of Malagawi
DIRECTOR: Janice Honeyman
CAST: Elizabeth Llewellyn, Aubrey Lodewyk, Alan Committie, Mandla Mndebele, Filipa van Eck, Lukhanyo Moyake, Monwabisi Lindi
VENUE: Artscape Opera House in Cape Town until Saturday, September 12
REVIEWER: Peter Tromp

As Michael Williams, Managing Director of Cape Town Opera (CTO), writes in the programme of ‘The Merry Widow of Malagawi’, this production is a reworking of Franz Lehár’s operetta ‘The Merry Widow’ – with new lyrics and dialogue written by director Janice Honeyman. This was a broad interpretation of the National Lottery Distribution Trust’s call for “New Work”, as CTO used the opportunity to repurpose what was a quintessentially European work and give it a wholly African “flavour”. It is an audacious interpretation, but one that can be deemed ultimately as a success.

Honeyman’s production is indeed a very crafty one; one that seemingly sacrifices some appeal with cultured opera goers to be more accessible to “the masses” who might be unfamiliar with the genre. It almost goes out of its way to incorporate African sounds into the fabric of the core work – something that hasn’t quite been harmoniously integrated, as evidenced most strikingly at the beginning of the second act, with the juxtaposition of the differing sounds being downright jarring. But it nonetheless contributes to an intoxicating, jovial “vibe”. The South Africa-specific social commentary is rather obvious, though; never progressing beyond the most obvious of observations on corruption and “the wives”. (Perhaps the source material doesn’t allow for more probing political insights.)

These negatives pale in comparison, though, next to the production’s strengths, chief of which is this: ‘The Widow of Malagawi’ is a blast. Incorporating as it does dramatic, dialogue-driven scenes with traditional opera components, production is closer to a musical than you might think and serves as a splendid entry point for people who are interested in dipping their toes into the opera scene. (I believe operettas served as a means for artists to cut loose from the structural constraints of traditional operas, and they often used this license to go broad.) As someone said after the show, ‘The Merry Widow of Malagawi’ is closer to a pantomime than almost any opera production you’re likely to see – and of course Honeyman is famous for her panto’s – but it is by no means crass, or watered down for public consumption. Honeyman just chooses to focus on the most entertaining aspects of the art form, and the result is a riotously funny and fun showcase.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the production lies in the performance department. As I have said many times in the past, Honeyman has a way with actors. Here, she’s working primarily with trained singers, not necessarily actors, but she gets the best out of just about every performer and even instils in one the sense that some of these opera stars might do just fine if they were solely called upon to act.
There is a palpable camaraderie amongst the cast – such a Honeyman-esque quality – which makes the whole affair feel infectiously joyous. This sense of “play” really translates to the audience, with us being made fully aware of the ridiculousness of the plot and the shenanigans the characters get themselves tied up in – all of this while we are invited to empathise and even like them – again, quintessentially Honeyman-esque.

Photographer – Bernard Bruwer

* Book at Computicket.