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Fidelio true to Robben Island’s past

Roshan Sewpersad

Cape Town Opera, Den Norske Opera, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Heinz Fricke (Washington Opera)
Director: Angelo Gobbato
Scenic and Costume Design: Michael Mitchell
Lighting Design: Kobus Rossouw
Venue: Robben Island Museum Prison Quadrant
Saturday, 27 March 2004

It was with great excitement and pride that I arrived at the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island, all dressed up on the afternoon of 27 March. My boyfriend and I certainly didn’t want to miss the ferry transporting us to the SA-Norwegian co-production of Beethoven’s freedom opera Fidelio in celebration of 10 and 150 years of democracy in SA and Norway respectively.

With tickets priced at R1 350 per person, the question whether to attend the unique performance required some forethought. But any doubts were allayed by the thought of the impact the event would have on our lives: an evening etched in memory forever. The SABC was even broadcasting the event on radio and TV, in addition to a live link to Greenpoint Stadium. In fact, the ferry trip itself, with champagne and perfect sea conditions, would have been enough for me! So the build-up was simply marvellous — here I was, a kid again!

While buses on Robben Island may be a good thing for people who can’t walk, and perhaps for the sanity of the penguins, when led by an overly cheerful ex-prisoner ŗ la Disneyworld, it just cheapens the experience. However, I wasn’t going to let a short bus ride dampen my spirits!

Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, a tale of freedom, heroism and conjugal love, is a “rescue opera”, a popular genre of his time. Set in Spain in the eighteenth century, it tells the story of Leonore, a noblewoman of Seville, who — disguised as the lad Fidelio — attempts to locate her husband Florestan, a political prisoner.

Act I. Fidelio becomes errand boy to the jailer Rocco, whose daughter Marzelline has designs on him. This distresses Leonore, as Marzelline’s attentions have Rocco’s blessing. When Rocco mentions a man lying near death in the dungeons, Leonore begs him to take her on his rounds. He agrees despite the prison governor, Don Pizarro, allowing only Rocco to descend to the lower reaches of the dungeon. As soldiers assemble in the courtyard, Pizarro learns from the dispatches brought to him that Don Fernando, minister of state, is on his way to inspect the fortress.

At this news the governor resolves to kill his enemy Florestan without delay and orders Rocco to dig a grave for the victim in the dungeon. Overhearing his plan, Leonore realises Pizarro’s evil nature and the plight of his victim. After praying for strength to save her husband and keep up hope, she again begs Rocco to let her accompany him to the condemned man’s cell — and also to allow the other prisoners a few moments of air in the courtyard.

The gasping men relish their glimpse of freedom but are ordered back by Pizarro, who hurries Rocco off to dig Florestan’s grave. With apprehension, Leonore follows him into the dungeon.

Act II. In one of the lowest cells of the prison, Florestan dreams he sees Leonore arriving to free him. But his vision turns to despair, and he sinks down exhausted. Rocco and Leonore arrive and begin digging the grave. Florestan wakes, not recognising his wife, and Leonore almost loses her composure at the familiar sound of his voice. Florestan moves the jailer to offer him a drink, and Leonore gives him a bit of bread, urging him not to lose faith.

Rocco then blows on his whistle to signal Pizarro that all is ready. The governor advances with dagger drawn to strike, but Leonore stops him with a pistol. At this moment a trumpet sounds from the battlements: Don Fernando has arrived. Rocco leads Pizarro out to meet him as Leonore and Florestan rejoice in each other’s arms. In the prison courtyard, Don Fernando proclaims justice for all. He is amazed when Rocco brings his friend Florestan before him and relates the details of Leonore’s heroism. Pizarro is arrested, and Leonore herself removes Florestan’s chains. The other prisoners, too, are freed, and the crowd hails Leonore.

Director Angelo Gobatto punctuated the scenes with excerpts of live recordings of speeches by Nelson Mandela. These were very apt in the context and highlighted themes from the opera — love, heroism, liberation, political struggle, art, performance, gender, morality, loyalty Ö

Given the synopsis above, it is fruitful to consider why the choice of opera is apt.

The prison quadrant on the island, a national monument, was transformed into an amphitheatre with a sympathetic and effective set, with colours, textures and material reminiscent of the Robben Island prison itself, as well as the shipwrecks off the island’s rocky shores.

I cannot say the same of the lighting and sound design, which did not enhance the production at all. Spotlights shining directly into the audience’s eyes, obscuring onstage action, and loudspeakers placed as far from the stage as possible, created a disjointed performance. I also strained to hear the orchestra in parts.

Costumes were modelled on uniforms worn on Robben Island. Furthermore, the original quadrant lookout tower was incorporated into the set. The production was contemporary in these respects.

The quality of singing was generally impressive, especially that of sopranos Linda Bukhosini (artistic director of the Playhouse Company in Durban) in the role of Marzelline, and Elizabeth Connel (London-based, internationally acclaimed dramatic soprano) in the role of Leonore. However, I wished their roles had been changed around as, visually, the plus-sized Connel did not make a convincing Fidelio, and Bukhosini could have tackled the role with equal aplomb.

The most notable male role was sung by Danish baritone Trond Halstein Moe, whose menacing and maniacal Pizarro impressed greatly. Norwegian bass Carsten Stabell gave an adequate performance of Rocco. He fell short in the acting and movement department.

Bongani Tembe (of the Playhouse Company in Durban) also performed adequately as Jacquino. Cuban tenor Moises Parker as Florestan was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the evening — after one had managed to shake of the visual (non-) impact of Elizabeth Connel. Granted, it was announced he was suffering from a throat infection, but he should have been replaced. While his movement was perhaps the most animated of the evening, his timing and vocal expression did not impress.

The Cape Town Opera Chorus performed ably and reliably and is proving to be excellent. Angelo Gobatto works wonders with crowd scenes and this production was no exception.

By the end of the opera one was grateful to SAA for providing travel blankets, as the temperature had plummeted. I was glad to be whisked into the curtained and draped prison hall, where an excellent buffet and libations awaited.

And there is nothing quite like sailing across Table Bay at night.



LitNet: 15 April 2004

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