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Opera review: Peter Brook's 'A Magic Flute' in New York

July 15, 2011 |  3:24 pm

P.VIctor - Abdou OuologuemPeter Brook’s “A Magic Flute” -- which is a highlight of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival and which ends its two-week run in New York on Sunday -- is Mozart magically reduced.

At 86, the legendary British theater and film director has said that this “Flute,” which toured Europe and will head to South America, is his swan song at the Théatre des Bouffes du Nord, where Brook has been based –- and made theatrical and operatic history -- for nearly four decades.

There are seven singers, two actors and a pianist. The stage is bare but for bamboo poles. The opera is shortened to 90 minutes and performed without a break. Gone are the three ladies, the three boys, the chorus, the orchestra, the overture, nearly an additional third of Mozart’s score and a certain amount of silliness.

Various reports of the U.S. premiere of this production imported from Paris have included “stripped down,” “streamlined,” “muted,” “distilled.” It has been called a “slimmer,” a “slender” and even a “drive-by” version of, as well as a “tasting menu” from, Mozart’s beloved opera.

Thursday night, I saw it differently.

Brook’s less-is-more style provides an occasion for amplification. Indeed, what is most strikingly distilled down to essences is not Mozart but Brook, who employs devices from many Asian and African theatrical traditions.

Brook has done radical, reconstructive operatic surgery before with his company, notably on Bizet’s “Carmen” and Debussy’s “Pelléas et Melisande.” Those were remade into compelling human dramas for a new stage. But “Une flute enchantée,” the French title of this production of Mozart’s penultimate opera, is more an enchantment, perhaps on the island neighboring the one in Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”

At the heart of this production are the two spellbinding actors with dreadlocks (William Nadylam and Abdou Ouologuem), who are Prospero-like figures. With wry, wise humor, they pull all the strings. They move with the grace of dancers. They manipulate the bamboo poles like sculptors. They are sleight-of-hand artists. And they have sly, sweet smiles. Thanks to them, what’s left of Mozart’s Masonic mumbo jumbo becomes more mambo.

The singers must be young, agile and believable. I saw a likable and convincing second cast but not one perhaps as vocally impressive as what reviewers have been saying about the first cast. Still, these singers must pass many tests. They sing in German. They speak the dialogue, which has been rewritten, in French. Their body language needs to be universal. With Brook, every gesture means something. Every movement matters. Every detail suggests another.

Brook and his collaborators -- Marie-Hélène Estienne and the elegant, understated pianist Franck Krawczyk –- have removed the childish, and many of the supernatural, elements from an opera often infantilized. Arias are given purely human contexts. Krawczyk doesn’t embellish his piano accompaniments to make up for a missing orchestra, but he goes to the opposite extreme, reducing textures to a cool Satie-like minimum.

There is no place to hide. Tamino (Antonio Figueroa) falls in love with Pamina’s portrait, and love is in the air. Pamina (Agnieszka Slawinska) becomes the opera’s most complex character, bearing the weight of competing emotions. Her mother, the Queen of the Night (Leila Benhamza), reacts as a woman wronged not an evil witch. Sarastro (Patrick Bolleire) becomes a bit more sanctimonious than usual, Monostatos (Jean-Christophe Born) a bit more sympathetic. Papageno (Virgile Frannais), the bird catcher, adds an unusual and useable layer of cynicism –- and with Papagena (Betsabée Haas) an unusual and usable eroticism.

Ultimately, the most intriguing aspect of this “Flute,” though, may be that a sense of serious ritual and of play need not be in conflict. Krawczyk toys with Mozart. He adds transitions from Mozart piano scores. Papagena is treated to a Mozart concert aria. The innovation here is creating the impression that an opera score can seem spontaneous even improvisational at points.

When Tamino and Pamina walk through fire and water in their ritual of purification, fire and water are light (the lighting by Philippe Vialatte is ever striking). It’s not just the music, not just the light, though, but the light purposefulness of this walk special to this music and light that reveals a couple's maturation.

The magic, in the end, is an illusion. The flute vanishes. People are left to be people. We don’t know where we’ve been or quite what’s happened to us or, for that matter, to Mozart. But the world looks fresher.

Peter Brook’s brilliant career won’t be over as long as there is still magic in this “Flute.” How is it possible that no one has done anything to bring this astonishing, and highly portable, show to Los Angeles? 


Theater review: An Evening of Peter Brook at the Broad Stage

The Tao of Peter Brook

--Mark Swed, from New York

Photo: William Nadlyam. Credit: Pascal Victor/ArtComArt