Created by the Isango Ensemble
Adapted and Directed by Mark Dornford-May
Music Arrangement by Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis
Based on the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder
Presented by Eric Abraham and ArtsEmerson
Review by Danielle Rosvally
(Boston, MA) Dispense with any ideas you might have about corseted Victorian Opera when you walk into the Culter Majestic to see The Magic Flute. This modern (perhaps even post-modern) adaptation of a classic piece of canon receives energetic, vivacious, and absolutely infectious treatment from its cast of boundless performers. This is absolutely not your momma’s Mozart.
Far from the full orchestra that we are used to in our Opera pits here in Boston, The Magic Flute is played entirely upon marimba-style wooden xylophones, drums, and several found instruments (such as bottles full of water). The flute is represented by a trumpet, but other than that the instruments are entirely percussion-based. This orchestral choice creates a warm, hollow, tropical sound to the music we are used to hearing and creates an uncanniness which permeates the performance: this both is and is not The Magic Flute.
The performers themselves are immensely talented. The cast prefers to be referenced as an ensemble (and indeed is listed in the playbill and all promotional materials as such), but there are a few stand-out performances. The Queen of the Night is played with an extraordinary and poised sense of innate diva. Papageno’s comedic timing and gusto made him light up the stage every time he was on it. Sarastro’s booming status is projected with every glance he gives.
If the singing weren’t enough, these performers (far from the Opera norm) also dance and act their hearts out. Their invigorating energy and boundless spirit shone through every heart-felt number from the actors performing center-stage, to the actors waiting in the onstage wings to add their voices.
The performers additionally provide their own musical accompaniment. The cast spends the shows weaving in and out between massive sets of wooden xylophones as they trade which instruments they play as easily as one might blink an eye. The conductor is in full view of the audience for the entire production, and (when he’s not hopping on a station to play an instrument himself), orchestrates the evening with so much soul that he seems to be himself transposed.
The performance suffered slightly from a distinct lack of subtitles. As any Opera-goer knows, even those sung in English can sometimes be difficult to understand due to the style’s constant ornamentation and deep demands upon the voice. In this instance, the opera was sung in mostly English with several South African languages peppered in (though to be honest it was often difficult to tell from the singing what language was being used). Particularly if you are unfamiliar with the story of The Magic Flute, this made the show difficult to follow.
Evocative costumes and simple set helps to wrap the audience in the world of the play. If the music alone isn’t enough for you (and it’s difficult to imagine that it wouldn’t be), you can certainly sit back and take things in visually.
And I highly suggest that you do if you have any love for opera, Mozart, or whimsical story-telling in a tremendous way. I have no doubt that this show is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal.