Walking down the hill into the Springfield High gardens, the opulence of this convent school venue is immediately striking. It is abundant: stretching mazes of flowers and trees, and big spaces filled with people in picnic chairs. And then – BAGPIPES? Yes. Leading a procession of the singers.
After a little introduction by Cape Town’s trusted piano-partner-in-opera Albert Combrink, the concert got off to a shaky start with the first few items: the Don Giovanni Overture, ‘La Donna è Mobile’ and Marietta’s Lied, which was sung in English but written in German in the programme. This was no ordinary concert. With a big crowd, a wind that came and went as it pleased, and a microphone (not the opera singer’s best friend) – the pressure felt by the performers at the start was evident.
(A quick note to concert organisers – programmes are important. Don’t allow typos, mistakes, jumbling up of items, or lack of information to slip in. All these were present. It would also have been a friendly and good marketing tactic to put the names of the relevant performer in front of each item so that, when looking back, audiences know what’s what).
Then the concert took flight, and what a beautiful flight it was, with Goitsemang Lehobye’s ‘Ebben! Ne andro lontana’ (from La Wally). My friend and I breathed a collective sigh of relief and the word “sublime” sang in my mind, a moment before my friend uttered it out loud next to me. From there, the music spread out indulgently and followed suit.
Riaan Hunter’s smooth baritone was effortless and beautiful in Don Giovanni’s’ ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’, and the opera’s duet ‘La ci darem la mano’ with Louise Howlett was graceful and sweet. This was a perfect match for her voice and the precise but delicate playfulness of the orchestra here was world class. They carried this standard on from this point to the end, and gave the concert the dimension of a European garden gala concert – totally transporting.
The La Boheme section (‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi… O soave fanciulla’) was stunning, with tenor Khanyiso Gwenxane showing his mettle.
After the interval, the concert carried a few more opera favourites, an interesting Spanish piece, and then made its way into contemporary territory. This started with Riaan Hunter coming out into the audience and putting on his Afrikaans Charmer hat. After a little sweet talk he sang ‘Liefling’, which was met with mixed reactions…The family in front of me giggled as their 20-something daughter turned to face them with a look of absolute shock and ‘skeef’ (look it up in an SA dictionary) freezing her face for several long seconds. His later English-charmer/Elvis rendition of ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You’, however, was lapped up by the audience and met with huge applause.
Ifriky Tadadjeu Sokeng grabbed the audience’s attention and finally showed us his real character with ‘Make a Man Out of You’ from the movie Mulan. His voice was stronger, more confident, and much happier here.
Louise Howlett also finally absolutely won us over in her final piece, ‘Girl in 14G’ (Thoroughly Modern Milly, by Jeanine Tesori). This is an amazing song which alternates between large dramatic opera excerpts, jazz skatting, and blues growling. Howlett’s opera here was her best in the entire concert; strong, confident big sound, with the jazz parts equal in quality. This was a truly exceptional versatility showpiece.
The concert ended with an ensemble piece of Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’, which the audience ate up for dinner, soundly satisfied.
Opera in a ConventGarden is an exceptional event with some exceptional performers. I look forward to next year’s version.
Opera in a Convent Garden took place at Springfield High School on 2 February 2014.
Marie-Claire de Villiers
Marie-Claire is a writer, blogger at www.restlessmusingsct.wordpress.com, singer and songwriter, composer, and music sourcer for productions.