Monday, September 15, 2014

The Magic Flute - Impempe Yomlingo Theatre Review

Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night (Photo: Keith Pattison)

Mozart on Marimbas
by Josh Simon (Contributing Editor)

Mozart on marimbas? It’s more endearing than it sounds; and it already sounds pretty darn endearing. Eight wooden African instruments flank the raked stage of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre; and the cast is already roaming the bare bones set of wood and metal, before the show even starts. Could eight wooden xylophones be enough to carry the weight of The Magic Flute, one of Wolfgang Mozart’s most beloved (and soaring) operas? Sure enough, the show begins and several cast members perform Mozart’s Overture... Percussion mallets on wooden blocks, turning the usually massive orchestration into a hollow, jingle-jangling peal.

It becomes clear, well before the overture is complete, that this is not the fairy tale opera we know and love (or at least caught snippets of, in the film Amadeus.) It's the Cape Town-based Isango Ensemble’s The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo. Relocated to a nameless South African township, Mozart’s characters are reimagined as native Xhosa South Africans; and as such, perform in Xhosa and English. When they aren’t blowing their arias out of the water, the multi-talented singer/actors play all of the instruments, conducted with furious vigor by musical Jack-of-all-trades Mandisi Dyantyis (who occasionally jumps in, to play some of the instruments as well.) Dyantyis, along with ensemble co-founder Pauline Malefane, rearranged the music to fit the unorthodox orchestra. Fear not however: The original tunes remain intact, but with striking new sounds and rhythms. The operatic score is now injected with sporadic South African chants, trills and dances, as well as an unexpected but charming doo-wop interlude. It's different; but trust me, it works.

Mhlekazi "Wha Wha" Mosiea as Tamino (Photo: Keith Pattison)

The ensemble, under the direction of co-founder Mark Dornford-May tours around the world retelling the classics with a South African spin (Impempe Yomlingo is playing at STC in repertory with Isango’s version of Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis.) The storyline remains relatively unchanged from the source. Tamino (Mhlekazi "Wha Wha" Mosiea) is given the task of rescuing the love of his life, Pamina (the Queen's daughter, played by Bongiwe Mapassa) from her sworn enemy Sarastro (Ayanda Tikolo.) Tamino and his girl-crazy, bird-catching companion Papagena (the adorably buffoonish Zamile Gantana) travel through the realm of the Queen of the Night in hot pursuit. Along the way, new trials and revelations threaten the young lovers and their quest to be united in marriage.

It's important to have a firm grasp on the plot beforehand (the playbill offers a thorough synopsis.) In addition to certain dialogue spoken in the Xhosa language, enunciation and clarity take a backseat to musicality. This is, after all an opera. Yet, the ensemble as a whole makes a great storytelling body; and the emotions and stakes of each scene need no translation. Highlights include the clowning antics of Gantana’s Papagena, several incredible duets between Mosiea and Mapassa, and Malefane’s appearances as the Queen... especially her rendition of Flute’s most famous aria. As many times as you may have heard the Queen of the Night’s Aria, it's doubtful you've ever experienced it like this. Malefane's stunning coloratura is nothing short of sensational; as are her equally impressive skills at the marimba.

Opera traditionalists may feel a tad jostled at this show; but those who appreciate a good jostling of an old story, should rejoice at this ensemble’s captivating production. The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo runs almost two hours (with one intermission) and continues through Sunday, September 21st. Click here to purchase tickets.

Grade: A-