NEW YORK CITY: At a July morning news conference in New York City, the 86-year-old and hugely influential British director Peter Brook and his collaborators — librettist Marie-Hélène Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk — confessed, with a laugh, that if they had their druthers, their lovely A Magic Flute would be performed entirely in English.
“We wanted it to be very accessible,“ Estienne said. “At the time it premiered, Mozart used the most popular and accessible forms of the day.” Unfortunately, however, Brook and his team were dutifully informed that an English-language Magic Flute was out of the question. Why? Because of Julie Taymor.
Allow me to explain. In paring down Mozart’s beloved opera to an intimate 100-minute version, Brook and Estienne sought for purity, speed and direct immediacy. Out went the decorative spectacle and heavy symbolism, with which the opera, Brook felt, had been too loaded. Out went the orchestra, too. Instead there is one onstage pianist, Krawczyk, who musically tinkers with Mozart’s dazzling score to fit one piano while frequently pulling off what he called “free improvisations” in tune with the actors and singers. (At times, Krawczyk mixes in other Mozart works, such as a fragment from the Piano Concerto No. 27.)
Moreover, the cast has been whittled down to just seven singers: the Queen of the Night, Sarastro, Monostatos, Tamino, Pamina, Papageno and Papagena. (An alternate cast performs on different evenings.) Two actors, who function as guides and stagehands, plays roles that don’t have names at all (although Brook has called them “magicians” in some interviews). “We saw some characters are no longer necessary,” Brook said. “In taking away these characters and taking away some of the necessary decorations of the music and story of the time, we try to suggest something else. We are not competing with other stagings by using spectacular effects. This is a pure language of story, people and sound.”
Thus, the canny title: this stripped-down fable, running through July 17 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is called A Magic Flute, as opposed to THE Magic Flute. The suggestion here is that this is just a possible interpretation, and not a definitive one that would compete with, say, Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film adaptation, Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 take for Swedish television or William Kentridge’s 2005 staging. New Yorkers who are looking for pomp and extravaganza may head over to the Metropolitan Opera where Julie Taymor’s puppet-festooned and fanciful The Magic Flute opened in 2004. As it turns out, Taymor’s staging still remains as part of the Met’s repertory. Since her production uses a clear and understandable English, Brook and company were dissuaded by Met Opera officials from similarly doing away that potential language barrier. First presented at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris last year, Brook’s slimmed-down A Magic Flute is performed in the original German, with the dialogue spoken in French and with the English translation flashing above as supertitles.
Given the history of grand and baroque embroideries that have attended it, A Magic Flute is as sui generis as any Mozart interpretation you’re likely to see. It really does not matter that this delicately realized production is sung and spoken in foreign languages. A Magic Flute is spare, upfront and welcoming. An English language take would probably have been the last step in bringing the opera even closer to contemporary New York audiences, but it is hard to figure how it could have been boiled down even further. Not only are sets of characters missing (gone are the three ladies who do the bidding of the Queen of the Night, as well as the three spirit boys whom the ladies summon to point the earnest Prince Tamino on the path to rescuing fair Pamina), the singers and actors don’t even wear any sandals or shoes. The only scenery are bamboo poles on squarish stands, grouped in various ways to suggest trees, a cage and the walls of a temple.
What Mozart’s original opera has lost in frippery, spectacle and silliness, A Magic Flute gains in intimacy, simplicity and innocence. It is no accident that Brook’s free interpretation was recently awarded France’s esteemed Moliere Award for best musical theater. Over the centuries, Mozart’s A Magic Flute can usually be found only in opera houses. Brook and company have tellingly restored this work — one of Mozart’s last creations, premiering only three months before his death at age 35, it is actually not an opera but a singspiel or “a play with singing” — to its original genre: in the halls of musical theater.
Modesty and confidence swathe the whole enterprise. Brook’s compression of Mozart’s Magic Flute at Lincoln Center Festival falls largely silent when it comes to offering dramaturgical reasons or musical analyses that might explain away his theatrical interventions. (Of course, this infiltration places A Magic Flute firmly in the same realm as Brook’s slimmed down versions of La Tragédie de Carmen and Impressions de Pelléas.) Although the plot is cleaner, minor inconsistencies do arise, and opera traditionalists will likely find A Magic Flute provocative, challenging and perfunctory.
Krawczyk on the piano, for instance, is elegant and inspired as a one-man substitute for an orchestra, but there were many times when bigness or heightened emotions seemed necessary to lift the event and make it more urgent and buoyant. During the later patches of the evening, a soporific daintiness descends upon the audience that was listening to Krawczyk’s brave attempts at rhythmic freedom, even though as the sole accompanist he was definitely almost another character onstage.
The young singers and actors whom Brook cast in A Magic Flute do indeed rethink what it means to be an opera performer. In our age of over-amplification, what a welcome relief it is to hear real and beautiful singing voices coming out of true individuals! The two standouts in the July 8 evening I saw the show were Malia Bendle-Merad who sensationally brought off the treacherous coloratura in her two great arias, and the French baritone Thomas Dolié who was an unalloyed joy as the humorous and irresistible Papageno. The tenor Adrian Strooper, wearing a plain black coat, brought a wholesome nobility to the role of Tamino, even though his character of a confused searcher seemed truncated. Jeanne Zaepfel, in the role of Pamino, lent her soprano role youthful ardor even though she was not especially memorable. Luc Bertin-Hugault showed regal strength as the high priest Sarastro — his “In Diesen Heilgen Halle” was particularly good.
A Magic Flute does not strike me as a Mozart for the ages. As poignant, thoughtful and graceful as Brook’s free adaptation might be, it is never quite as richly effervescent as I hoped it would be. This Flute is certainly light, it is very tender, it is intimate, it is entertaining, and it has depth. Here is an intervention, however, that cannot escape the feeling, even as you are having a wonderful time, that it was a gallant exercise — a willed exploration into Asian theater-style essentials that could have used less chic grace and a little bit more playful oomph. — By RG
A Magic Flute
Directed by Peter Brook
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Freely adapted by Peter Brook, Franck Krawczyk and Marie-Hélène Estienne
Lighting Design by Philippe Vialatte
Costumes by Hélène Patarot with the help of Oria Puppo
Pianists: Franck Krawczyk and Matan Porat
Singers: (alternating casts): Dima Bawab, Malia Bendi-Merad, Leila Benhamza, Luc Bertin-Hugault, Patrick Bolleire, Jean-Christophe Born, Raphaël Brémard, Thomas Dolié, Antonio Figueroa, Virgile Frannais, Betsabée Haas, Agnieszka Slawinska, Adrian Strooper, Jeanne Zaepffel
Actors: William Nadylam, Abdou Ouologuem
U.S. Premiere by Lincoln Center Festival
Co-produced by C.I.C.T/Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord; Lincoln Center Festival; Barbican, London; Festival d’Automne à Paris; Attiki Cultural Society, Athens; Musikfest, Bremen; Théâtre de Caen; MC2, Grenoble; Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg; Piccolo Teatro di Milano—Teatro d’Europa.
Executive Producer: C.I.C.T/Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, Amsterdam Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets
July 5, 6–10, 12–17 at 8 p.m.; July 9, 10, 16, 17 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $45, 65, 85. (212) 721-6500, lincolncenterfestival.org