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GRAHAMSTOWN - OPERA (article first published : 1999-07-7)

Regular Standard Bank National Arts Festival–goers have long been familiar with the collaborations between artist and director William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company with such trail-blazing productions as Voyzeck on the Highveld, Faustus in Africa and Ubu and the Truth Commission. This year, however, the production seen on the main festival did not originate in South Africa. It was created last year in Brussels as a co-production financed by the Flemish Government between the Handspring Puppet Company, the Royal Monnale Theatre, the Belgian Arts Festival and the Vienna Festival. Which means that Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (The Return of Ulysses), the Kentridge/Handspring’s first attempt at opera, joins the ranks of the other prestigious imported shows appearing in Grahamstown.

The superb singing cast, recruited in Brussels, lent their considerable mastery of the score to great effect. Scot Weir’s Ulisse (both as the aged frail figure on the hospital bed and the young warrior in his prime) was strong, dependable and proud while Guillemette Laurens’s glorious voice gave the faithful and loyal Penelope added lustre. Their closing duet was particularly memorable. They were ably supported by Wilke te Brummelstroete, Vincent Pavesi, Margarida Nativadade, Peter Evans and Stéphan van Dyck. The puppeteers were Adrian Kohler (who also designed the set with William Kentridge), Basil Jones, Louis Seboko, Basu Zokufa and Tau Qwelane.

With musical direction by Philippe Pierlot, the Ricercar Consort performed on baroque instruments giving as much authenticity to the Monteverdi score as possible. The set, which looked like an old-fashioned high court, was surmounted by a screen which presented the Kentridge images we’ve come to know so well - in this case, of cat-scans, X-rays and dissected human organs. There were several particularly impressive sequences when it appeared as if Ulysses was striding down a hospital corridor or moving through the olive groves.

For those unfamiliar with the Kentridge/Handspring style, one of the most striking factors is the way in which the puppeteers work with the puppets. It’s a fascinating interaction, as if the handler becomes the puppet’s translator, caretaker and critic all rolled into one - watching and checking the reaction of their charges at all times. This multi-media production may not appeal to purist opera buffs but it’s a visual and theatrical masterpiece.


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