By BRUCE DENNILL
The Magic Flute / Directed by Christoph Dammann / Mandela at Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Mozart’s final opera is a complex beast, while also being a daft Disney fairytale antecedent that goes through long sections of hardly making any sense. That’s when it’s done well, too, with the original story all in place, the language kept in its classical furrows and the set supporting the pillars of the plot (and the supposed hidden meanings behind everything, placed there by Mozart as references to his Masonic precepts.
When that formula is adapted, there’s a risk of the result being a bit of a mess. That’s not to say that updates or creative interpretations should be avoided, but it does emphasise the fact that there are risks to staging them.
Director Christoph Dammann and producer Musa Nkuma’s new version takes a great number of liberties with the original blueprint, almost all of which are inferior to the old standards. Designer Sybille Pfeiffer’s costumes are odd at best – even if there are characters supposed to be dressed as birds, combining a sports coat and a feather boa is not what you might expect in an opera. And elsewhere, there seems to something of a Rocky Horror Picture Show addiction being exercised (or exorcised) as Sarastro and his cohorts appear and disappear in lab coats, Lady Gaga boots and other fetish paraphernalia. Sure, he stands for reason and science, but we don’t need our noses rubbed in it. Or to have touches of Starlight Express or The Lord of the Rings (Monostatos pretends he’s Gollum at one point) thrown in there, either…
To reiterate: creativity is wonderful, but it needs to be consistently applied.
The set is three doors, a giant bed and a huge screen that appears to be set to maximum “Hunter S Thompson”, featuring images that are either broadly generic (mountains) or psychedelic (Sunset Boulevard palm trees).
Another visual distraction is the surtitle board, which only started working half an hour into the opening night performance, and then only refreshed at curious intervals, which was tough because although much of the dialogue for this production is in English, there are also interludes in Zulu and in Afrikaans which are not translated, allowing for equal-opportunity confusion for audiences who don’t speak at least one of the lingos.
These are the challenges for the audience, but they’re tempered by some formidable strengths. The German Rhine Philharmonic Orchestra are an excellent unit capable of subtle shade and light, guided by the undisputed star of the whole production, conductor Desar Sulejmani, who emanates passion for his craft and the material he’s working with. And the bulk of the voices are strong, with special mention reserved for Queen of the Night Aleksandra Oleczyk, whose performance of Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen is superb, as are the perfect three-part harmonies by local youngsters Lydia Pieterse, Kirsty McCulloch and Emma Shipholt as The 3 Ladies.
Musically, then, there is merit to the piece, but everything else is distracting at best and annoying at worst. If you’re a huge fan, perhaps stick to the CD, but if you want to be pushed a little – out beyond the pale, perhaps, try this perspective.