South Africa’s Isango Ensemble has brought a unique interpretation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute to Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre this week. This inspired production places its emphasis squarely on the magic.
Imagine a Magic Flute stripped of its Masonic overtones and European manners, and set in the townships around Cape Town. In fact, start by calling it Impempe Yomlingo, which apparently is how South Africans know it, though in what language is difficult to say. The program is very uninformative about this and many other things.
Instead of an orchestra in a pit, there are eight marimbas lining both sides of the stage. Percussion is supplied by a couple of battered old oil drums hung on a steel scaffolding at the back. Rusted sheets of galvanized steel surround a playing area that is steeply raked.
When the conductor Mandisi Dyantyis enters, he is wearing a T-shirt and barefoot. Stranding stage center with his back to the audience, he raises his hands to begin, and his image from the front suddenly appears projects on a sheet that unfurls from the scaffold. Then on the downbeat, the familiar notes of Mozart’s overture arise, but from the sweetly ethereal sounds made by the marimbas. We are not in Vienna anymore. The magic has begun.
The marimbas are voiced like a choir with soprano, alto, tenor bass. Two of each. Their range is wide and their tonality rich. No apologies to Mozart need to be made. The effect is stunning. Within minutes, they stop feeling like a gimmick, and earn their places as solid musical underpinnings for this uncommonly talented cast.
Then Tamino arrives, is rescued by three maidens and soon after encounters Papageno. Those who know the opera will immediately feel themselves on familiar ground, all the more so when Mhlekazi (Whawha) Mosiea opens his mouth as Tamino and reveals an ardent, if light, operatic voice. As do the maidens. They sing Mozart’s music the way he wrote it.
Things shift when Papageno starts his aria known elsewhere as Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja, and the orchestra gently slips into a calypso rhythm. The essence of Papageno’s angst over the lack of a woman is not only preserved as he sways away his unhappiness, but enhanced.
Six young women appear portraying the birds Papageno is trying to catch. And if we missed the point, we see the word “Birds” spelled out in rhinestones on the backs of their pink jackets when they do a swooping step or two. The aging wunderkind Peter Sellars might have done that, but it would have felt self-consciously forced. Here is fits right into an unusual, colorful theatrical fabric that is being carefully woven as we watch.
As much tinkering as this Magic Flute has, it plays it straight with its Queen of the Night. Paula Malefane, the co-founder of Isango Ensemble, has sung opera in Europe and knows what she has to do. She delivers splendidly with a supple voice that thrills. And a very powerful presence. Later in the evening when she is wielding a knife, she sends shivers down spines.
Before long, the story is carried along by the orchestra who turn out to be the chorus as well, not to mention the dance ensemble. They sing in the tight harmonies of South African church music best known in the U.S. from Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Indeed, when the music heats up, the orchestra musicians dance as they play. When any of them are needed to do something else on stage, other Isango Ensemblers jump on to their instruments and keep the music going. These guys are all-rounders. Mostly they sings in English, with occasional detours into Xhosa and other South African languages.
And so it goes, with these unpredictable juxtapositions of one culture enfolding the other never failing to surprise and please. Papageno’s enchanted bells are rendered by spoons hitting bottles filled to different heights to create a scale of mystical tones. Monostatos is suitably mesmerized by them. When Tamino raise his magic flute to his lips, the music comes from the conductor who plays a trumpet from upstage center.
The greatest joy of this Magic Flute is its sheer ingenuity. Much of the credit for that belongs to director Mark Dornford-May, an Englishman formerly with the Royal Shakespeare Company who has been living in South Africa since 2000. He is married to Malefane whom he directed in a similar style production, u-Carmen that has been filmed and won a clutch of awards.
(Isango Ensemble’s version of La Boheme recently completed filming in South Africa and will be released in February. Its orchestra is made up primarily of steel pan from Trinidad. The company has a repertory of a half-dozen similar cross-fertilized productions and tours internationally with them regularly.)
Rarely has any opera ever had such good acting from its entire cast (here 24), whose enthusiasm is unpreventably contagious. At one point they spill from the stage into the aisles and spread their good energy as they do.
Not everyone is fully equipped vocally. The voices, in general, are very pure and rich, but not always as large as one would like to hear. The singer portraying Sarastro, for example, projects power with his melodious, deep voice, but has yet to claim full ownership of his character’s lowest two notes. He is probably way too young to be singing this role, and with good training, he may well add more bottom in a few years.
Apparently very few in the cast have ever had formal training. Those who have, share what they know. The others work hard and draw strongly on their ample musical gifts.
The greatest frustration with this production is the lack of a cast list in the program. The few names mentioned here are drawn from a write-up about the Isango Ensemble the program does include. But who is that incredibly funny guy playing Papageno? Or that buxom, sweet-voiced Pamina? Perhaps Emerson Arts who is hosting Isango Ensemble through October 26th can come up with a cast list to insert into the program.
An evening of pure pleasure, this is the kind of Magic Flute that will please nearly everyone, though it might give hidebound opera lovers lots to snort about. The rest of us may delight in the company of a transformed, much-loved old friend.
There is one extra pleasure to this production. Its sparse set and lack of a curtain exposes all of the back stage areas and the Majestic’s cavernous flies from the moment one enters the house. For theatre buffs who lament the profligate loss of so many of Boston’s great theaters such as The Gaiety, The Old Howard, the Pilgrim and all those Clarence Blackall creations, this Magic Flute provides a happy opportunity to relish the full elegance of architect John Galen Howard’s design. More magic.