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South African 'Magic Flute' at STC

Mhlekazi (Wha Wha) Mosiea (Tamino) and cast in The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo, Isango Ensemble
Mozart's timeless Singspiel The Magic Flute is a universal tale. Its libretto, in a pseudo-Egyptian setting, is imaginary enough that it can be transposed to almost any other locale, and its Masonic ideals can be applied in any culture where the human heart yearns for freedom from tyranny and men and women seek one another in love. The most recent production under review here, at Washington National Opera, had a Japanese look in its design. South Africa's Isango Ensemble has made a radical adaptation of the opera, now playing at the Shakespeare Theater Company, that merges the story with Tsonga folk legends in southern Africa about the andlati birds believed to cause lightning from their nests high in the mountains. Seen at its opening last night at the Lansburgh Theater, this streamlined and radically altered version is likely not Mozart enough for a strict opera purist, but as a reworking of that beloved original it is sincere and impossible not to like.

The chance to hear the opera's famous overture played on seven rough-hewn marimbas, a sound I will not soon forget and not because it was in any way unpleasant, is probably worth the price of admission, because the repeated-note motifs of the piece work perfectly on that instrument. The general process followed in adapting Mozart's music to mostly marimbas and percussion, by arrangers Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis, was to simplify, in terms of the number of repetitions in strophic songs and in the complexity of more complicated melismatic passages. With some numbers removed and others moved around, the run time is reduced to a little under two hours, and there was nothing one felt sorely missing. The level of performance is not, strictly speaking, up to operatic standards, but as the music was ingeniously moved into the idiom of African traditional and even pop music, the way that it was performed was in its own way seductive and pleasing.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, South Africa’s Isango Ensemble beautifully remolds ‘The Magic Flute’ (Washington Post, September 16)
The adaptation was actually at its strongest when it took Mozart's melodies and harmonies into completely foreign territory: Papageno and Pamina's duet Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen morphing into a sort of Calypso choir dance number, or the trio of the spirits as a doo-wop song. In the cast, some voices were better than others, with the upper two of the Three Ladies, Papagena (Zamile Gantana), Sarastro (Ayanda Tikolo), and Tamino standing out, although all of them, including the striking Queen of the Night of Pauline Malefane, took liberties with their parts to make it through. Mark Dornford-May's direction was effective, transforming Sarastro's brotherhood into a sort of circle of elders, and adding the sounds of a trumpet for the magical sound of the flute, made of the bone of the andlati in the Tsonga legends, as well as clinked bottles of water for the magic bells. The choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana enlivened the most exuberant scenes.

This production continues through September 21, at the Shakespeare Theater Company.

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