Tamino, a Prince, is saved from a monster by the attendants of the Queen of the Night who, in return for the service rendered him, send him on a mission to rescue her daughter from the hands of the High Priest of Isis, Sarastro. The Queen is furious with Sarastro, because he has taken away her daughter, Pamina, in order to bring her up in the temple in the paths of purity and goodness, away from the evil influence of her mother. Tamino eagerly undertakes the task; and is joined by a merry bird-catcher, Papageno. The Queen gives a magic flute to Tamino, which he is to play in times of danger, and to his companion she gives a peal of bells for the same purpose. They succeed in saving Pamina from the unwelcome attentions of Monastatos, a slave, who is terrified at the unusual appearance of the feather-garbed Papageno. The new-comers are brought before Sarastro, who proves to the young Prince that he is really doing right in detaining Pamina from her mother; and, seeing that the pair are already in love with one another, he promises them future happiness if they are only willing to go through many ordeals to purify their hearts and prove themselves worthy of the great gift of Love. The lovers agree to all the conditions, and they go bravely and without hesitation through the ordeals of Silence, Fire and Water which lead them to the altar. Their trials are not over, for the Queen of the Night still determines upon revenging herself upon Sarastro; and she visits her daughter in a vision and commands her to slay him. Pamina refuses, but her courage is tried by the absence of Tamino, who is taken from her side to be initiated into the mysteries of the rites of the goddess Isis. For a while she is tempted to believe her absent lover false, but she is reassured and permitted to join in the trials to which he is exposed. Papageno accompanies Tamino in most of his adventures; and in all their times of difficulty, by the use of the magic flute and the peal of bells, they are able to conquer the dangers that beset them, since the music has the power to change anger into kindness and storm into calm. Finally all the plots of the Queen of the Night are frustrated, and Pamina and Tamino come through all their trials and troubles cleansed and purified. Papageno secures a reward by finding a companion in a pretty little feather-clothed maiden, Papagena, and they plan a large family. As the evil of the Queen of the Night is finally conquered, the sunshine of goodness and joy drives away the darkness; and as a reward for their true love and faithfulness throughout all their trials Pamina and Tamino are united. Love and integrity conquer all that is evil and dark.
My Readers will have to forgive me if I burble on at considerable length about just how fantastic this production was, and if I stumble about ladling superlatives all over it – but this really blew my socks off and made an incredible start to the year’s theatre-going. If you haven’t already read about this production in the press, then I will fill you in. This is an all-black company of young actors, singers, dancers and musicians from one of the most poverty-stricken areas of South Africa, presenting what might best be called “European Classics” in their own imaginative style (they're also doing A Christmas Carol). To describe it as “The Magic Flute meets The Lion King” comes nowhere near doing it justice. For this is Mozart’s tired old warhorse of an opera performed on marimbas, trumpets and empty coke bottles, underscored with tribal chants and traditional dance rhythms, and sung, danced and acted with incredible energy, verve and utter joy. The characters and story remain the same as in the original, but this production completely strips away centuries of white cultural imperialism and exposes powerful, raw bones of emotion. It is filled with a sense of wonderment and of the sheer delight of making music and sharing it with an audience. The company is multi-talented – dancers who can play instruments, singers who can dance, musicians who can act. No rigid demarcation here – the entire company are involved at all times in presenting their work to you. But why do I call it “work”? The sheer joy of performing and sharing came across in bucketloads – from the lovely lady playing the marimba during the overture and smiling fit to burst, from the row of people playing water-filled coke bottles and wiggling their hips in time to the sound, to the trio of lavender-suited “guardian angels” having a rare old time sending up The Three Degrees. This production showed that opera doesn’t have to be stuffy and rigid – it can be powerful and emotional and quite, quite thrilling. The cadences and rhythms of tribal music and song call to your soul – there were several times when I found myself jigging about in time to the beat, and wanting to get up on stage and join in the fun – and when was the last time that happened while you were at the opera?
Performances were uniformly excellent – Mhlekazi Mosiea sounded fresh and in complete vocal command of the role of Tamino (fiendishly difficult and one of Mozart’s most vocally demanding male roles), and he was more than ably partnered by Philisa Sibeko as Pamina, seemingly effortlessly soaring above the entire company with a voice like fresh water pouring from a bowl. Zamile Gantana was a wonderfully funny and touching Papageno and Thozamo Mdliva one of the happiest and downright sexiest Papagena’s I’ve ever seen - there's something about a well-built African woman dressed from head to toe in pink camouflage that makes you just want to smile. Simphiwe Mayeki, while not as vocally deep as is usual for Sarastro, nevertheless sounded like honey warmed in the sun. Bongiwe Mapassa sounded just a little pushed as the Queen of the Night, but she can be forgiven for this as she was covering this incredibly difficult role last night for Pauline Malefane at short notice. Her interpretation of the character, however, was spot on, combining brooding malevolence with the slight detachment from reality that the part requires.
The production was almost brutally simple, presented without scenery on a large tilted stage of wood the colour of scorched earth, allowing your imagination to take flight like one of Papageno’s birds released from the cage of convention – in this case, eight smiley ladies dressed in shocking pink struttin’ their stuff during his first solo, wiggling their hips and neatly pointing up that this birdcatcher was just as interested in the human kind of “bird” as he was the feathered kind. The Queen of the Night appeared under a flickering blue neon crescent moon like that outside a seedy nightclub and the three “guardian spirits” (usually cherubic young boys), were sassy, streetwise young girls, all polished nails and bobbed hair – the scene where they appeared in fluffy pink baby-doll nighties, each carrying a shocking pink teddy bear got a deserved round of applause. I loved the simplicity of the scene in which Papageno’s mouth is padlocked for lying – a bucket with a keyhole painted on it was simply put over his head. His “magic bells” were water-filled coke bottles rapped with old spoons by a group of men and women up on the balcony. I also loved the running joke that the sound of the Magic Flute itself (here a long length of what looked like bamboo on a fabric shoulder strap) was provided by a silver trumpet. The fact that the guy playing the trumpet was actually standing in a spotlight on stage right behind Tamino made it doubly funny and really took the mickey out of stage artifice – its usually played on a real flute from the orchestra pit.
During the interval, I stood next to a large African woman crying her eyes out in the foyer while beaming all over her face. I heard her say “These are my people and I am so very proud of my country” and, by God, I could have hugged her. It was a wonderful, wonderful evening, full of magic, joy, energy and the happiness of making music and sharing it with others. It’s deservedly transferring to the West End (the Duke of York's Theatre) and I can do no more than urge you to go along and have your perceptions of opera turned inside out to the beat of the marimba.
What the critics said: