|Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night. Photo by Keith Pattison|
Mozart's Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute") is not only immortal but universal; I think Boston last saw it set in a Mayan temple (at BLO) - but the humanity of this particular masterpiece is so apparent (and runs so deep) that it can work in any context, with any actors, anywhere.
Still, the new production from Cape Town's Isango Ensemble (at ArtsEmerson through this weekend) stands out from the crowd - perhaps most strikingly in musical terms. Re-christened "Impempe Yomlingo," the opera's orchestration has been arranged entirely (aside from the flute itself, which is here a trumpet) for marimbas, found objects, and other forms of percussion by Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis (Malefane also plays the Queen of the Night with imperious pique, while Dyantyis conducts with sweetly swooning passion).
And the good news is that the marimbas are, indeed, magical. Their transporting tremolo is not so very far from what we imagine should be the sound of the magic bells that are pivotal to the plot - which Mozart originally scored for the now-lost "stromento d'acciaio" (literally "instrument of steel"). Whenever the marimbas are singing their silvery song, all is well with this Flute.
If you're a vocal technique geek, however, I feel I must add a note of caution. Many voices here are a bit stretched, and the yawning proscenium of the Cutler Majestic doesn't do anyone any favors (and sometimes exacerbates balance issues with the marimbas, which tend to resonate loudly in the cavernous space). Subtitles might have been a good idea, too - even though the text is sung in English, the South African accents sometimes proved a challenge to Americans unfamiliar with the text.
The group singing is better - often far better; the trios are charming, and the chorales (particularly for the men) are quite moving. The show is most compelling, though, when Malefane and Dyantyis dare to edge Mozart closer to Mozambique; the freer rhythms in the second half gave the performance an infectious energy, while the ululations from the Queen of the Night's forces were thrilling. (In general I wanted to hear more from Africa and less from Europe - Mozart will survive the trip, trust me, just as his half-dreamed plot survives its streamlining here.)
The production is also festooned with clever asides and witty grace notes. The costumes, for instance, mix and match ancient tribal motifs with nods to disco and even the Supremes. And while the dancing wasn't overly precise, it was always hearty - and it was simply amazing to see a soprano step down from a Mozart trio and throw herself into a performance on the marimba - for everyone in this cast did double or triple duty onstage and in the orchestra. Indeed, a powerful sense of ensemble was evident throughout the show that's rare in the world of opera. And that's always magical.