Reviewed by Andy Wilding
Woordfees 2016, Fismer Hall, 11 & 13 March 2016
Director: Marí Borstlap
Cast: Lente Louw – Dido, Willem Bester – Aeneas, Elsabé Richter – Belinda, Nick de Jager – Towenares, Antoinette Blyth – soprano, Riaan le Roux – bass
Instrumentalists: Hans Huyssen – Musical Director & Baroque cello, Kathleen du Plessis – Baroque violin, Jens Eggers – Baroque violin, Elmarie van der Vyver – Baroque viola, Uwe Grosser – lute; chitarrone; Baroque guitar
From the moment we set foot inside the hall, director Marí Borstlap was already communicating her concept – a modern, innovative, and resourceful interpretation of a 300-year-old opera. If we were expecting a scene from a classical painting, we would have been surprised to see the interior of a hospital. Those who are familiar with modern theatre would quickly have guessed “mental hospital”, and they would have been correct. The sound of waves breaking on the beach added another clue as to the relevance of this location. I enjoyed the minimal set, it had a clean Googlesque modernism, in exciting contrast to the archaic subject. Dramatic use of colour in the lighting of the set, and occasional video projections and sound effects, brilliantly created the various moods and scene changes.
Borstlap also managed to create humour in this dusty Greek myth – the hilarious duet by cell phone between Willem Bester and Nick de Jager. Another highlight for me was the stunning duet “The hero loves as well as you” by Elsabé Richter and Antoinette Blyth, with Lente Louw standing on a chair, beaming and blushing like a new bride, and the cast throwing white paper high into the air to rain down on her like confetti. Borstlap’s concept of Dido required quite an advanced level of acting, which I felt Louw handled extremely well. Playing on the location, her moods swung dramatically from morbidly spaced out and depressed, to a deliriously happy 5-year-old birthday princess drinking up all the attention. She is also a wonderful and dynamic singer, her amazing voice is a treat for the audience. Her diction is excellent, and this requires great skill in finding the balance between the shapes that sound good, and the sounds that are recognisable words.
The entire cast did very well with the libretto, I found I could hear the plot and follow the story with ease. Willem Bester (Aeneas) has a beautiful rich velvet tenor and precise intonation, like a well tailored suit. And the award for Show Stealer goes to countertenor Nick de Jager for his amazing performance as chief monster – a roll I later discovered to be The Sorceress. I enjoyed being able to follow approximately what was happening, without having actually studied this opera before. It was very accessible. (Were I a better Afrikaans reader, I could of course have read the program, but I read it afterwards, searching for interpretation clues.)
With help from Uwe Grosser, who changed his instrument as frequently as the small cast changed rolls, musical director and Baroque cellist Hans Huyssen held the baso continuo and conducted the quintet orchestra with clear body language and attentive sensitivity to the singers. In keeping with Purcell’s score, the four part strings and continuo was the perfect size for the venue. It also enabled the audience to hear the unusual sounds of Grosser’s lute, chitarrone (long neck) and Baroque guitar, the subtle sounds of which are often lost in larger ensembles.
If we did wonder at the interpretation, we needed to remember the context of Woordfees – a festival that celebrates Afrikaans literature. With this in mind, the concept could be a tribute to Ingrid Jonker, who spent some time in a mental hospital suffering with depression. She, like Dido in this production, walked into the sea when she had had enough with life. And does this metaphor extend? In light of the current political changes in the University of Stellenbosch, are we also being warned not to let the Afrikaans language “walk into the sea”? The opera ends with the repetition of the words “Remember me, Remember me…” Director Borstlap has hit the triple word score and accomplished exactly what the University of Stellenbosch Woordfees is all about – keeping the Afrikaans language alive and kicking. And there is genius in achieving this statement and hitting her mark, using an English opera as her medium!