Way back on 30 November 2007 I heard a radio discussion (BBC Front Row) comparing three versions of the Magic Flute then in the arts news. One was a film version by Kenneth Branagh set during World War II. The second was a CD of music, The Amadeus Project, loosely woven around the names featured in The Magic Flute.
The third, by far the favourite of the reviewer, was Impempe Yomlingo, a South African version of Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ with 30 singers, marimbas, drums and other township percussions. In fact, according to the Times, when critics saw the show before Christmas when in was at the Young Vic, they were won over
“by a spectacular and joyous Africanisation of Mozart’s operatic fable.”
I have been wanting to go ever since hearing the radio programme and last night I was not disappointed. I spent an enthralling 2 hours and 20 minutes and the performance well deserved the ovation given at the packed Duke of York’s Theatre in Central London. I was particularly struck by just how much the performers seemed to be enjoying themselves and this joy was definitely infectious. This Magic Flute is very clever mix of traditional opera with accompaniment on marimbas and drums with vocalisations (including a few joyful ‘whoops’ and some traditional tongue clicking) filling in for the absent orchestra. Mark Dornford-May, the British director is quoted as saying.
“We wanted to find out what happens if you take away the orchestra and put the music on South African instruments.”
For example, the orchestration for Papageno’s well known (Bird Catcher) Aria towards the beginning was provided by marimbas and the voices of female cast members, who turned round to show us the word bird on their backs with Papageno singing about catching the chicks in his net. Very modern! The equally famous Queen of the Night’s aria towards the end was sung beautifully in a much more traditional manner with the difficult high notes pitch perfect. It was an energetic and colourful performance with humour and joy, but also serious content which provided a very good balance. The Magic Flute is well known for having a strange story. This clever adaptation, set in a South African township, with its mixture of English and South African tongues, was both fitting and very effective.
Definitely not a Magic Flute for purists, but somehow I think Mozart might well have approved! If you are London I urge you not to miss out. From what I can make out bookings run to the end of April 2008.
Additionally, I understand that this production of The Magic Flute deservedly won the Olivier award for ‘Best Musical Revival’ on Sunday 9 March 2007 for its performances at the Young Vic.