Isango Ensemble @ ArtsEmerson :: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' & 'uCarmen'

by Clinton Campbell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 18, 2015

A production still from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
A production still from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'  

South Africa's Isango Ensemble has returned to the Emerson/Cutler Majestic stage after the success of their stellar "Magic Flute" last year. This time they have brought us two operas performed in repertory - Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Bizet's ""Carmen," "here renamed "uCarmen."

Based out of Cape Town, Isango is known for their interpretations of Western opera and theater. By setting these works within South African locations and utilizing their own theatrical traditions, they transform them in to something new and unique. Performers are drawn from the local townships and have broad and varied talents. This is the pinnacle of both 'community' and ensemble theater.

Opera purists may bristle at the adaptations. They are abridged. The performances are not always technically perfect according to Western standards. The English translations can be a little clunky at times. But the talent here radiates from every corner of the stage.

A production still from 'uCarmen'
A production still from 'uCarmen'  

The ensemble alternates between performing roles and playing instruments. Hearing these scores played predominantly on marimbas, in addition to drums and some percussion, can be disorienting at first yet it is completely satisfying. The rhythmic playfulness of the music is highlighted throughout.

It should also be noted that while marimbas are 'pitched,' the tonal support for the vocalists is limited. So the ability for this group to avoid intonation issues is praise worthy in itself. The benefit is that the sparsity of the accompaniment also allows the beauty of the individual voices to take center stage.

In true ensemble fashion, the performer's names are not identified with specific roles. The focus is on the group and not the individual. Everyone receives a moment in the spotlight.

A production still from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
A production still from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'  

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Of the two, Britten's 1960 operatic setting of Shakespeare's "Midsummer" is the more loosely adapted. Portions of the score are removed and replaced by South African music. The resulting blend of musical traditions helps accentuate the "other worldliness" of Shakespeare's play.

All the roles here are performed with a delightful playfulness. Puck is mischievous and cunning. The Mechanicals (Bottom, et al) are goofy and lovable. The four lovers are all charming and the 'fight' quartet in the second act is spectacular. And while I've never understood Britten's decision to make Oberon a countertenor, the gentleman performing the role does so with great skill.

This is everything you want out of "Midsummer."

A production still from 'uCarmen'
A production still from 'uCarmen'  


On the other end of the musical spectrum is "Carmen." Written in 1875, the original production was quite controversial and the opera really did not assume its place in the canon until after Bizet's death.

Here Isango has moved the action from Spain to a modern African authoritarian country to great success.

Carmen herself is captivating to watch. She maintains the perfect blend of sexiness, toughness, and humor. She commands the stage throughout.

The only issue is that the woman playing the role is in no way a mezzo-soprano and therefore does not always have enough power in her lower range to be heard. Don Jose and Micaela, in contrast, sing their roles impeccably yet are a bit two-dimensional in their characterization.

That said, there are wonderful moments throughout - both musical and dramatic. It is a Carmen to be remembered.

Taken together, what Isango has accomplished is astonishing. The shear breadth of skill to handle two very different operas in repertory is remarkable. These are master storytellers and performers. If we are lucky, they will be a recurring visitor to the ArtsEmerson stage and continue to bring their unique voice.

The remaining performances of Isango Ensemble's productions of ""A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Carmen" are Wednesday through Sunday at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For further information, the ArtsEmerson website.