A Streamlined Magic Flute


© The New York Times –  July 7, 2011 – By Anthony Tommasini.
A Magic Flute,” not “The Magic Flute,” is the title the director Peter Brook gives to his enchanting adaptation of Mozart’s beloved opera, which opened at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College on Wednesday night. Mr. Brook uses this slight alteration of the original German title to make clear that his pared-down, 100-minute, touchingly intimate version of the opera — performed by just seven appealing singers, two arresting actors and the elegant onstage pianist Franck Krawczyk — is just a take on the original, an exploration.First presented at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris last year, this “Magic Flute,” part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is like no other production you will see.
Gone are the three ladies who do the bidding of the Queen of the Night. Also missing are the three boys the ladies summon to point the earnest Prince Tamino on the path to rescuing fair Pamina. The set consists of nothing but bamboo poles on stands, grouped in various ways to suggest trees, a cage, the walls of Sarastro’s temple. The music is performed in the original German; the dialogue is spoken in French; and English supertitles reveal how much this production has tweaked the text and story.

Working with the writer and director Marie-Hélène Estienne and Mr. Krawczyk, who is also a composer, Mr. Brook plays down the symbolism with which the opera is thought to be loaded. Mozart and his librettist “don’t preach,” Mr. Brook states in an interview included in the program. “This is a pure language of story, people and sound.”

Purity, simplicity and innocence are the hallmarks of this adaptation. Still, the philosophical strands of the story — especially Tamino’s quest to know wisdom when he encounters it and to figure out how to tell whether a person of seeming authority is good or bad — come through with startling impact in this playful production.

By clearing away the spectacle, silliness and sheer “accumulation of ideas,” to quote Mr. Brook, that have attached to Mozart’s work over centuries, the director has created a theatrical context for his cast to get inside the characters. And his cast on Wednesday (some other singers will perform during the long run) was wonderful.

These young artists were chosen not primarily for their singing voices but for their skills as actors and their willingness to rethink what it means to be an opera performer. The tenor Adrian Strooper brought a light, sweet, lyric voice to the role of Tamino. With his wholesome persona, in his plain black coat and bare feet (all the performers were shoeless), he embodied the young, idealistic and confused searcher. The soprano Jeanne Zaepffel’s modest, tender voice and trusting look made her a beguiling Pamina. As her mother, the Queen of the Night, the soprano Malia Bendi-Merad sang with a light yet penetrating sound and pitch-perfect accuracy during the coloratura flights. This was not a malevolent queen but a woman desperate over the erosion of her awesome powers and the kidnapping of her daughter, whom she sees slipping away into the realm of light.

Those who expect a Sarastro to express his authority through a stentorian bass sound may be disappointed with Luc Bertin-Hugault, whose voice was patchy. But he brought calming dignity to his portrayal, and conveyed Sarastro’s rueful awareness of how the world works outside his enlightened brotherhood. Raphaël Brémard, as Monostatos, and Dima Bawab, as Papagena, were also excellent.

A star was born for the audience on Wednesday with the French baritone Thomas Dolié as Papageno. Mr. Dolié sang in a light, warm and pliant voice. In his white overalls and peachy-pink work shirt, he looked every bit the earthy, natural man. And a born actor, he achingly conveyed Papageno’s befuddlement by just scrunching up his face.

But the linchpin of this production is Mr. Krawczyk, not just for his elegant playing but for his free adaptation of Mozart’s score. The piano could easily have seemed merely a poor substitute for an orchestra. Playing with rhythmic freedom, improvisatory flair and delicacy, Mr. Krawczyk turns the piano into another character. Sometimes he highlights inner voices boldly or alters chords. Now and then he folds in Mozart piano pieces (the ominous opening of the Fantasy in D minor, the deceptively simple theme from the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 27). When Papagena, in the guise of a bent-over hag, first appears to Papageno, she sings a Mozart song, “Die Alte,” in which an old woman bitterly complains about modern times and says that in her day virtuous girls became brides and things were better.

For a production that aims to be so “effervescent,” to quote Mr. Brook, “A Magic Flute” is often haunting. Here is an adaptation that gets you thinking, even while you are having a wonderful time.

“A Magic Flute” runs through July 17 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College; 899 10th Avenue, at West 58th Street, Clinton; (212) 721-6500, lincolncenterfestival.org.
A version of this review appeared in print on July 8, 2011, on page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: A Streamlined ‘Magic Flute,’ Reimagined by Peter Brook.

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