Opera review: Amagokra and Curlew River, Cape Town Opera,  June 2021

 What: Amagokra and Curlew River- double bill Company: Cape Town Opera in association with UCT Opera School Where: The Novalis Ubuntu Institute When: June 4, 5, 2021 Director: Christine Crouse Conductor: Jeremy Silver  Bookings: Computicket

Amagokra  and Curlew River – double bill, presented by Cape Town Opera in association with UCT Opera School at The Novalis Ubuntu Institute June 4, 5. Amagokra is a new opera- composer Sibusiso Njeza and librettist -Asanda Chuma Sopotela. Curlew River – Benajmin Brittem (composer) and William Plomer after Montomasa Juro (premirered 1964).

I was unable to attend tomorrow night so attended preview last night, June 3. Sheer perfection – in terms of technical – no preview hiccups.  Astounding. If you can get a ticket, grab it (reduced seating because of adjusted Covid regulations.)

Two harrowing pieces of opera theatre. Harrowing and powerful.  Brilliant voice by the artists; design, lighting. The set is an installation- filled with suitcases, posters of missing children dangling on strings. Both productions play out in the same setting. A red suitcase is key to both operas. 

Outgoing opera artistic director, Matthew Wild described Amagokra as “unflinching” in its gaze on GBV (gender based violence). It is. It is one of the most hard-hitting pieces I have seen on violence in this country. “When rape is perceived as normal, society needs help.”  That is one of the news clips (The Star newspaper) dropped into the stage design. And consider this: “Their bodies were found in fields, strangled, raped, decapitated. Their names will not be written in the holy books.”  

This is the world premiere of Amagokra – commissioned by Cape Town Opera. It follows Curlew River by Benjamin Britten (1964 was its first staging). Curlew is performed by an all-male cast – inspired by Japanese Noh. No time to go into that in this quickie review. But the point is that we have the all-male cast of Curlew, followed by Amagokra – Womxn/female cast. My take home or Curlew – it is an interrogation of grief and the possibility of closure. A woman- The Madwoman must cross the fictional Curlew River to find her missing child. Plot spoiler – she does. He is dead. The knowledge frees her and the message I get is through faith in a higher being, we can find hope and solace. That is great – for those that can submit to a higher presence. The production is a lament, prayer, communal gathering of connection. 

However, Amagokra is a different story. There is no poetic framing. Real names are invoked. Real clippings are flashed in the scenic design: “Their names will not be written in holy books.” I repeat this line, mentioned above. Rape is rape. “Less than 4% of rape cases reported lead to a conviction.”  Yeah, it is all on stage. There are jabs at presidents, getting away with rape in this country. The young artists are in magnificent voice – passionate and urgent. They dance. They watch each other. Director Christine Crouse has assembled and layered this production in multiple directions. We get the urgency and despair and it’s cantilevered by the ensemble voice and stirring solos. There is transcendence – through voice – voice of artists and voice of young women- voicing that they are not going to be silent. They are not relying names being inscribed in holy books.

The use of the venue is astounding in both operas – with “catwalk”(the dinghus that models walk on -cannot think of another word?), exits and entrances in the Novalis Ubuntu hall. The orchestra is part of each narrative – each instrument is cued into the action. Bravo conductor Jeremy Silver. It is like sitting in a site responsive performance in the Novalis Ubuntu – a space for humanity-not organized religion. 

A magnificent double bill – Curlew River and Amagokra -gritty, immersive opera theatre. Harrowing- with theatrical catharsis- through unflinching engagement. Don’t look away: ‘How DID (my emphasis) we get here’? That is what we need to face. Theatre pulls us in to the moment and we cannot look away. The lights are dim. The artists are singing and voicing what needs to be said. 

I hope that Cape Town Opera is able to present this double bill again- in this venue. Must see. Must listen. Must watch. This is a quickie review – to get out in time for TheCapeRobyn newsletter (delivers Fridays, around 11am, please sign up),  so no time to comment on the orchestra and music and other details.

Curlew River – staged by Cape Town Opera CT Opera School at The Novalis Ubuntu Institute June 4, 5, 2021.This pic from preview on June 3. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

Taking a bow: Amagokra  and Curlew River – double bill, presented by Cape Town Opera in association with UCT Opera School at The Novalis Ubuntu Institute June 4, 5.  This photo was taken at the preview on June 3. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

❇ Image credit: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen- pics taken at preview, June 3, 2021