July 2012
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Month July 2012

Cape Town Opera performs ‘Porgy and Bess’ in London -A different perspective

A peek at the Cape Town Opera. Why isn’t there more online?

If you wish to know the background of George Gershwin’s American opera, please visit this website under ‘Porgy and Bess’ at http://tinyurl.com/dymgo5g.

A peek at the Cape Town Opera. Why isn’t there more online?

‘Porgy and Bess’

I Loves you Porgy:

Racism is so deeply imbedded in the psyche that African artists are not aware when they turn it against themselves. To explain, this ‘Porgy and Bess’ was set in Soweto instead of Charleston, South Carolina, on the assumption that Soweto provided a similar context for understanding. But Black oppression is individual, and African-American oppression in the South was very idiosyncratic.

Many Black people in the South held deep religious conviction about their ultimate deliverance by the hand of God, and they patiently asked Him to consider their plight. They were waiting for God- and the story of Jonah and his tribulations was a symbol of their affliction. Charleston was hot ; the cicadas were always busy in the trees,  and there was often mourning in the singing. The waters of the bay lapped the lazy shore, and the fishermen plied their nets, while some of the women were market gardeners. There were the city folk, like Porgy, and there were the Gulah folk. Violence would sometimes erupt, and it was most likely to be Black-on-Black, as frustration became turned inward against one’s own. The violence was often petty, about women or debt or dope.

Many of the individuals were resigned, patient and and socially bonded together, especially through the Church. Rebellion could take the form of remembered African rites held in the middle of the night.

So I wanted to hear the hymns sung quietly, running through the score, the spirituals sung just below the breath. This is complex music. Many of the melodies taken from real hymns and spirituals amid the blues and syncopation and the fugal blasts .  It is a score full of light and dark, softness and crescendo. It is complicated to listen to, so one must be helped by being directed in performance to what we are meant to hear, because it is not possible to hear all of it at once. Some of the experience must be about eternal time and waiting, and those waves lapping lapping. Gerhwin had Charleston in his head as he composed. He was living there.

When I sat in the theatre in London , I hoped that I would close my eyes and return to the South of my childhood and to Charleston. That is why I am telling you that Soweto isn’t Charleston. But I heard wonderful voices, and the Cape Town Opera had no weak link- even the cameo parts such as the strawberry hawker, Siphamandla Yakupa, and the devil- crab man, Vuyisile Hlaka, were memorable.

‘Porgy’ was sung by Otto Maidi. He has a powerful, rich voice that is beautiful to listen to. He sensitively captured Porgy’s psychological strength and his physical weakness. ‘Bess’ is not a tart.  She is a Black woman caught between her moral upbringing and a fantasy of escape to the high life. Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, who played Bess, has an exquisite,  soprano voice;  her high notes were beautiful and dense:


‘Summertime’ sung by Philisa Sibeko was evocative and bell-like. I could continue like this through the whole cast.


with Maria Callas

How can we in Europe remember these amazing names so that we can follow these great artists? I personally yearn to hear them sing again.

Songs from ‘Porgy and Bess’:

‘I go plenty o’ nothin’

It Ain’t Necessarily So:

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald

San Francisco Opera:

Igor Kolb, Principal at The Mariinsky gives a Masterclass to the Kasok Dance Theatre, Photos by Nicolay Krusser

The Royal Ballet: Tamara Rojo’s last performance in ‘Birthday Offering’; A Month in the Country’; ‘Les Noces’

Saturday evening, 7 July 2012 ,  had a tinge of sadness to it. It was Tamara Rojo’s last performance with the Royal Ballet , as she becomes the new artistic director of the English National Ballet.  The evening was a tribute to Frederick Ashton with ‘Birthday Offering’ to music by Glazunov, and a ballet inspired by Turgenev’s play, ‘A Month in the Country’ , which reminded us of the beauty of Ashton choreography, inspired, I believe, by Bournonville and Fokine. The evening finale came with ‘Les Noces’ by Nijinsky’s sister,  Bronislava Nijinska. The specter of the old Russia was  an ‘absent presence’ .

‘Birthday Offering’ premiered at the 25th birthday celebration on 5 May, 1956, of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. A few months later the company was granted a Royal Charter and became the Royal Ballet. Its ballerinas included Violetta Elvin, Beryl Grey, Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Elaine Fifield. They each performed Aurora in one week.

Frederick Ashton revived ‘Birthday Offering’ in 1968 for Nureyev and Fonteyn. Here we see a slightly bemused Fonteyn in rehearsal with Frederick Ashton. Nureyev actually knocks Fonteyn over in the last pose, to which Frederick Ashton dryly responds, ‘Shall we do it again, Margot?’ When I was about 14, I actually met Frederick Aston, who took me backstage to meet the ballerinas. I was dressed in a Danish blue dress with bright red shoes with little heels. He told me that he just worked there, but that he liked my red shoes. I wondered how he knew all the leading ballerinas. It gradually dawned on me who he was when I examined my programme afterwards.

Here are three of the currently leading ballerinas of the Royal Ballet, again dancing Aurora from Petipa’s, ‘Sleeping Beauty:

Alina Cojocaru:

Here Tamara Rojo is partnered by Rupert Pennefather:

Marianela Nunez partnered by Thiago Soares;

Here are Makarova and Dowell dancing ‘A Month in the Country’. This is Ashton’s final masterpiece which premiered in 1976, after he had ceded his directorship of the Company to Kenneth Macmillan in 1970. It is to music by Chopin.

In the performance I saw,’Natalia Petrovna’ was danced by Zenaida Yanowsky,and the dashing tutor by Rupert Pennefather: Here is Yanowsky performing in the Ballroom of Buckingham Palace. Her partner is Robert Bolle.

To continue to focus on Ashton’s beauty, here is a clip from his  ‘Romeo and Juliet’. What is seen most frequently today is Kenneth Macmillan’s version:

Ashton’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ danced by the Royal Danish Ballet:

The same scene choreographed by Kenneth Macmillan featuring Alessandra Ferri:

‘Les Noces’ (1923)

‘Les Noces’ is one of the most striking and innovative compositions in the repertoire of ballet. As Stephanie Jordon writing in the programme says, ‘…[it] still looks like no other dance made before or since, way beyond established traditions of movement vocabulary and construction.’. Straviinsky’s score using four pianos, percussion and a vocal chorus celebrates the mechanisation and industrialization of the new Russia or at least its aspirations. Yet, something ancient and traditionally Russian interrupts these rhythms but is distorted by them.

Using the simplicity of the narrative, Stravinsky created his own text , derived mainly from the Pyotr Vasilyevich Kireyevsky collection of traditional wedding texts, just  as he went to traditional wedding scores for his basic melodic material. ‘[S]temming from the discovery that Russian folk song distorted the spoken stress of the word’, Stravinsky was free ‘to give words new value as sounds beyond and separate from their original meaning’.

‘The text is both sacred and profane, dealing with both the sacramental solemnity and the procreative imperatives of the wedding rite.’ ‘There are blessings and invocations to saints  […] references to the combing of hair, to a conversation between berries [… ] to swans and geese […] and during the Wedding Feast increasing talk about wine and beer and the culmination in ritual sex.’ [Above from programme notes by Stephanie Jordan]

The artistic influences are said to be several. The first is Russian Constructivist Art which used geometric shapes in abstract designs and borrowed from Cubism:

Next was the work of Natalia Goncharova, who designed the costumes for ‘Les Noces’;

The third influence was the innovative choreography of Nijinska’s brother, Vaslav Nijinsky, in such works as ‘The Rrite of Spring’ and ‘L’apres-midi d’un Faun’. Here is a clip from ‘Rite’ which reveals a choreographic homage in ‘Noces’:

Bronislava Najinska (1891-1972):

Nijinska was in Russia between 1914 and 1921. ‘Separated from her brother, she made her first dances, and under the era’s avant-garde painting and theatre wrote her first treatise, ‘The School and Theatre of Movement’. ‘Here she challenged the art of ballet as she knew it and laid out her plans for training a new kind of dance artist.’ (Programme notes by Lynn Garafola) Having spent most of 1918 in Moscow, Nijinska returned to Kiev until the outbreak of the October Revolution. In February 1919, just after the birth of her son, Lev, she opened a School of Movement in Kiev.

Nijinska joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1921. But Diaghilev made her wait two years before he allowed her to make ‘Les Noces’. She did justice to the life she had left behind in Russia, ‘ -with its hunger, utopian promise, and seemingly endless creative possibility’ . (Lynn Garafola )

Nijinska, according to her own words, ‘was only a women’. She struck a note for women’s liberation in ‘Les Noces’ with the ten- foot plaits of  her peasant bride, which  symbolised the marriage as a type of  bondage.

The Royal Ballet revival of ‘Les Noces’ is the only revival actually created by Bronislava Nijinska. Most others are restaged by her daughter, Irina, after her mother’s death. In 1966, Frederick Ashton  invited Nijinska to the Royal Ballet just a few years before her death. Her recreation of her old ballet met with wide acclaim and is the authentic piece. [There is a documentary film of Nijinska teaching the Royal Ballet ‘Les Noces’: Svetlana Beriosova was the bride.]

Finally, a bit of Beriosova’s dancing: