By David Browning
New York City, NY – As part of the Lincoln Center Festival, C.I.C.T/Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord is presenting A Magic Flute through July 17 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. It is called A Magic Flute rather than The Magic Flute, according to the interview with director Peter Brook excerpted in the program, because it is a sort of reinvention, a “journey of discovery.” I am a big lover of The Magic Flute. My blog is called Taminophile, after all. I’ve seen other reinventions of the story, and of course many traditional productions and excerpts, and I think this production is on a par with some of the best. I was charmed and amused and enriched by the experience Sunday evening.
Some might call this production Selections From The Magic Flute, as several of the ensembles, instrumental movements and introductions were cut. Other bits of Mozart were occasionally interpolated in places to help set the mood. (This would be the appropriate time to point out pianist Matan Porat’s skillful and musical contributions at the 88-key orchestra.) The three ladies, three spirits, and two priests, and dragon were replaced by two actors who helped move the story along. All dialogue was in French, from the original Paris production, although some quips about New York and one or two lines in English were cleverly thrown in. The actual singing was in German, mostly true to Mr. Shikaneder’s libretto. The set consisted of vertical bamboo poles, with clever use of more poles and drapes to suggest scenery rather than create it.
This production features a cast of eager young singers with fresh faces and light voices, each role double cast because of the number and frequency of performances. The Tamino I saw, Australian tenor Adrian Strooper, offered an exceptionally sweet sound and a convincing portrayal of the young prince. He had the dignity of a prince without being stiff, and the enthusiasm of a young man in love without losing his dignity. Papageno was sung by the charming and handsome Thomas Dolié. His singing was lovely and his portrayal was boyish and earnest. Sarastro was beautifully sung by Luc Bertin-Hugault. Pamina was sung by Jeanne Zaepffel, a young soprano with a very light but pretty voice. The Queen of the Night was quite capably offered by Malia Bendi-Merad, a lighter voice than we expect in that role here in the US. Papagena was sung with joy and gusto and beauty of voice by Dima Bawab.
This “reinvention” was full of interesting touches I haven’t seen before. The Queen’s coloratura passages became a sort of hypnotic device, first drawing in Tamino to enlist his aid, then convincing Pamina she must kill Sarastro. This put Tamino’s changing alliance to join Sarastro’s order in a much more understandable and honorable light. It is as if in the Act I finale the scales of ignorance fall from his eyes and he sees the truth at last. It also makes Pamina seem a little less unstable–just a little–when she is driven to despair and the thought of suicide over Tamino’s silence.
In Sarastro’s aria “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” he sings of redemption and forgiveness through friendship and love. Monostatos (Raphaël Brémard) is attracted by this promise, but in the end he is unable to accept Sarastro’s offer of forgiveness, likely overwhelmed by the shame of what he calls his black heart. In the Act II finale a similar offer is made to both Monostatos and the Queen, with the same result. In the Papagena scene in which she is an old woman, she sings the amusing Mozart ditty “Die Alte” (“The Old Woman”), which mourns the lack of breeding and manners in today’s youth, instead of having the coy dialogue we all know. She nearly attacks poor Papageno as she sings. When she is finally revealed as Papagena, she is just as cute as can be, in a costume matching Papageno’s exactly. (Thankfully, neither is wearing feathers.)
I was never more aware of how large questions of life and death are in The Magic Flute. Tamino braves the threat of death to gain honor and wisdom, Pamina nearly embraces death in despair, and Papageno toys with the idea for the few moments he can focus on any idea. Even Monostatos exclaims he’d rather die than live alone and miserable, as we presume he has been living. In the end he and the Queen choose a symbolic death (or maybe literal, depending on the production) rather than live a life of love and brotherhood with Sarastro’s followers. Taken all together, it seems we are hearing that death is preferable to dishonor, ignorance or solitude. Or perhaps that dishonor, ignorance and solitude are viewed the same as death.
There are several more performances of this opera before the final performance on July 17. I would tell lovers of Mozart, of Die Zauberflöte, of fairy tales, and of good singing to go see it. I might try to see it a second time myself.
David Browning is a singer and writer living in the greater New York City area. He is the publisher of the opera blog Taminophile: www.taminophile.com
Photos by Stephanie Berger – Used with permission