It’s a brave company that takes on Puccini’s best-loved opera – and the fourth most frequently performed opera worldwide – and radically alters every aspect of it. Yet South Africa’s Isango Ensemble has done just that with its latest production, currently being performed alongside Aesop’s Fables and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at London’s Hackney Empire. In less than two hours, the production, about the love between a young struggling writer, Lungelo, and a poor dying flower artist, Mimi, strips away all the elements of opera that all too often feel like filler to reduce the story to one that’s about the very essence of life – love, death and money.
In Isango’s production, a small cast of musicians and singers drawn from the Townships around Cape Town relocate Puccini’s original Parisian-set melodrama to a Township on Youth Day, an annual winter public holiday in South Africa which commemorates the day in 1976 when a Soweto demonstration by schoolchildren helped changed the history of the country. The meaning is clear: we are dealing with the inequalities and iniquities of power, politics, and wealth, and their devastating impact on the health, welfare and wellbeing of disenfranchised black people. Which is fitting, as the production is a unique partnership with the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria.
Out go distractions like Puccini’s children-packed street scene, while the subsidiary and counterpoint storylines about Lungelo’s friends and lovers – primarily Mandisi and Zoleka, or Marcello and Musetta in Puccini’s original – are neatly reduced to shorthand without diminishing the central story or indeed their own tales and impact on it. It’s a neat lesson in how to make opera more compact, more accessible, more affecting and more intense – strip away the unecessary, and you’re left with something that packs a deeply emotional punch, particularly when you add in some intruiging musical shifts. For while Mark Donford-May’s adaptation wisely steers clear of tampering too much with beloved favourites – ‘Che Gelida Mannina’ is as haunting and gut-wrenching as you could want – much of the ensemble music is rescored with stunning African harmonies and choruses, with marimba and steel pan drums spanning the gamut from haunting to playful, gentle to stirring. These are the only instruments, unless you count the voices, which are integrated perfectly with the instruments to form a harmonious whole. Add in exhuberent dancing and fine acting from all members of the cast and this is the perfect introduction to opera for anyone… you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll probably give them a standing ovation. On the night we saw it, everyone did.