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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Opera Review: Three Chords and the Truth

Isango Ensemble presents a souped-up Magic Flute.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Soprano, arranger, ruler of the heavens: Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night
in Isango Ensemble's The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo.
Photo courtesy New Victory Theater/Shakespeare Theater Company.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute received a decidedly African makeover this week, with the arrival of Isango Ensemble's touring company at the New Victory Theater. (The performances, which run through November 9, are in association with Carnegie Hall's ongoing South Africa-oriented Ubuntu! festival.) Retitled The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo, this performance repurposed the opera's original Masonic parable as an exuberant celebration of South African township culture, with the score performed on...marimbas.

That's right. Co-arrangers Pauline Malefane (the Ensemble's co-founder, she also sang the Queen of the Night) and Mantisi Dyantis (who conducted) reconstituted the driving rhythms and memorable melodies of this opera for voice and percussion alone. The results are remarkable, sounding like Mozart filtered through the percussion pieces of Carl Orff with lashings of township jive, American jazz and gospel. The three stentorian chords (a motif throughout the opera) and rapid-fire ostinato of the Overture proved to be perfectly suited for these instruments. Eight players (four on either side of the stage) performed impressive feats of percussive dexterity, perfectly reproducing even the subtlest shades of orchestration.

Tenor instruments in the front ranks took woodwind solos and string harmonies. The two big marimbas in the back literally pounded out the figured bass. In certain numbers requiring more finely drawn melodic lines, the marimbists would add their voices, humming violin parts in "Die bildnis", whistling birdcalls in scenes featuring Papageno, or adding a djembe for more aggressive rhythms like Sarastro's Act I procession. Mr Dyantyis even picked up a trumpet to serve as the voice of the titular flute, its sharper tone cutting through the raucous ensemble of dancing beasts and thunderous rhythms of pounding feet. Even as certain numbers in the opera were peppered with spicy African rhythms, the golden thread of Mozart remained constant and unbroken throughout.

The drama (in English and African dialects) was acted out on a steep wooden rake. Singers emerged either from a trapdoor at the back (which belched fire at the start of the opera) or entered from the two orchestra pits, swapping places with the percussionists and picking up mallets. Sarastro's chief priest (Zebulon Mmusi) spoke not of Masonic brotherhood but of having Tamino (the tenor Mhlekazi (Whawha) Mosiea) "join the band." In inviting the opera's callow hero to join the celebration of community, this production revealed its ultimate goal. Papageno (Zamile Gantana) was more conventional, strolling onstage with a slide whistle, his "feathers" changed to mismatched fatigues.

The best voices here were Pamina (Zolina Ngejane) and the Queen of the Night. Ms. Ngejane's "Bei mannern" duet with Papageno was moving, coming in its proper place as the fulcrum of the first act. "Tamino, mein!" was every inch the blossoming of womanhood that Mozart intended, as the character transcends from damsel-in-distress to a representation of the eternal feminine. Ms. Malefane had one pulled-sharp high note in her Act I aria but nailed "Die hölle rache," with the chorus of marimbas propelling her into the upper register and making space for that series of manic, but not piercing high Fs that, if sung properly, bring down the house.

In trimming this work's libretto, some directors ignore the symbolism and deeper meaning and pander to (what is perceived as) a younger audience. Director Mark Dornford-May did not make this mistake. Instead, the racism and misogyny of the original Zauberflöte libretto were carefully blurred, and the conflict between Sarastro (Ayanda Eleki) and the Queen was presented as serious business. Mr. Eleki cut an imposing figure, part high priest and part tribal elder, with his clergy drawn from the same merry crew of marimbists who played the opera's overture. Monostatos (Thobile Dyasu) the "villainous Moor" who is this opera's most controversial figure, here became a baton-swinging policeman, drunk on his own authority and easily defeated. (In an interesting note, his fatigues matched Papageno's.)

Room was also made for the naturmensch Papageno and his love life, although one wishes that the bird-catcher's little ditties were not trimmed to two stanzas each. The chorus of female "birds" were a nice touch, as was the appearance of percussionists playing glass bottles on the catwalk for the famous magic bells. The "Pa-pa-pa-geno" duet was simply a delight, with the happy couple (Papagena was sung by Siyasanga Mbuyazwe) juggling newborn babies like carefully wrapped parcels. Less convincing was the "love at first sight" relationship between Tamino and Pamina but they made a handsome couple. Thoughtful trims in the second act kept the show from becoming too much of a farce, while what remained of minor scenes (like the all-important duet for Two Men in Armor) retained the opera's spiritual mystery and finally, its humanist core.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.