The strength of Bhekizizwe from Opera’r Ddraig, described as an operatic monodrama, is the performance by Themba Mvuta in the title role.
I was going to say the only role, as this is a one person singing role, but the talented singer actually performs several characters in this story of a young person from a South African village, who is supported by his community to go to study first in Pretoria and then London.
The main other roles are the leader of his village, a college lecturer in Pretoria, then in London and then the father of the girl with whom he fathers a child. We also have his mother, who gives him to other family members while still a baby.
Our strong baritone is accompanied by five musicians who also at times form a quasi chorus, both vocally and dramatically, as the story by Robert Fokkens and Mkhululi Mabija unfolds.
Musically and dramatically, the show is stronger in the first half, set in the apartheid era as the clever lad is encouraged to study hard for the benefit of his village. It is to go and become a political activist that his mother leaves him.
The second half is the meat of the story as the now young man ditches his village sweetheart for a white girl in London, who becomes pregnant, and has to choose between staying with her (although mainly the child) or going back to South Africa.
However, these London scenes are less effective particularly when our performer switches into a hackneyed portrayal of a presumably well to do English man (the girl’s father) to spout racist cliches and then the ending descends into a “man the barricades” polemic about being seen as a man and not by the colour of his skin.
The opera itself would be far stronger if we did not have to be soon fed such things as drawing the analogy between Bhekizizwe being left by his mother and having to choose whether to leave his daughter.
It would also have been stronger if the situation he find himself in London as an outsider and then the pregnancy of the young girlfriend while both are presumably still students and from different backgrounds had been made more universal. Yes, this is about apartheid South Africa and racism of the period but the context could have also applied to other socially marginalised groups at the time and now.
The music is an attractive blend with delightful African music underpinning the entire score, and of course the language used in the libretto.
Tthe musicianship is excellent and that central portrayal extremely strong.
The almost exclusively white audience at Cardiff’s Chapter enjoyed it.