Magic, Mozart and Marimbas
By Nantie Steyn
So every time I say, "I saw The Magic Flute at the Market the other night," people who missed the Kentridge version's eyes light up. Then I say... " not the Kentridge version, but the one done by Mark Dornford-May, from U-Carmen eKhayelitsha fame." And then their eyes dull.
Which is completely ridiculous because Impepe Yomlingo is a wonderful production, recently back from a sold-out season at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End in London. It also played to full houses and standing ovations for nine weeks at the Young Vic at the end of 2007. The production received the Theatre Goer's Choice Award, and it beat both Fiddler on the Roof and Little Shop of Horrors to the Best Musical Revival Award at the prestigious Laurence Olivier Awards this year.
The members of the production company, Isango Portobello, are hardly strangers to accolades.
Pauline Malefane, who plays the Queen of the Night, won the 2007 SAFTA for Best Actress in a Feature Film for U-Carmen. More than an impressive and majestic soprano, Pauline participated actively in the adaptation of both U-Carmen and Impepe Yomlingo.
U-Carmen took the Golden Bear for Best Film in Berlin in2005, as well as Best Feature at the LA Pan African Film Festival. Director Mark Dornford-May's 2nd feature, Son of Man, received the founder's prize at the Traverse City Film Festival where Michael Moore, who presented the award, described the film as "one of the most beautiful and subversive films of the decade."
Eric Abrahams is a South African-born film, television and theatre producer, who has received both an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for the film Kolya (Best Foreign Language Film 1996). Based in London, he has produced many acclaimed television dramas and feature films, including Dalziel and Pascoe and Danny the Champion of the World starring Jeremy Irons and Robbie Coltrane. In 2005 he produced his first West End show, As You Desire Me, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Bob Hoskins in the lead roles.
It makes sense that great talents like these would produce an adaptation of The Magic Flute that rips fearlessly, and with immense and joyful energy through all expectations of what opera should be.
There was no curtain. When we arrived we found all the actors on the sloping stage, standing around, chatting, leaning on each other, waiting for the audience. The only sign that the show was about to start was the dimming of the lights, when the cast fled to the open wings and the banks of percussion instruments on either side.
The orchestra had been dumped and the score reworked by Mandisi Dyantyis, so that voices were accompanied only by sound of the marimbas. The actors and singers doubled as musicians, leaping vigorously between the stage and the instruments during the performance. The only other instruments in the show were the trumpet, played by Dynatyis, that provided the sound of the magic flute, and bottles of filled water, which became the music of Papageno's magic bells, and his bird whistle.
The story had been simplified so that the whole work plays in about two hours and fifteen minutes. Tamino, a young traveller lost in a strange land, is perused by a fire-breathing beast. Three women, soldiers of the Queen of the Night, save his life. The Queen herself charges Tamino with rescuing her daughter Pamina, who had been kidnapped by Sarastro. In return, she promises him, he can marry the princess. To help him, the Queen presents him with a magic flute.
Papageno, bird catcher and Tamino's new friend, sets off with him. The three "spritis" guide them to Sarastro's camp. Papageneo finds Pamina being attacked by Monostatos, Sarastro's henchman, and they escape together. Tamino discovers that Sarastro is not evil, as the Queen alleged, but that Monostaos was in fact cahoots with the Pamina's mother, who had sown discontent and suspicion among Sarastro's people. At this point, everybody is captured by Sarastro's soldiers.
Pamina tells Sarastro that Monostatos wanted to rape her, and Sarastro believes her. After some discussion with the elders of the tribe, he decrees that, if Tamino survives the initiation, Sarastro will hand over his power to Tamino and Pamina, who will rule together.
The most dramatic hiccup on the road to this happy ending is the moment in which the Queen of the Night hands Pamina a knife and orders her to kill Sarastro, threatening to disown and curse her if she does not. It is in this moment of vengeful rage that the Queen performs the famous Queen of the Night aria or "Der Holle Rache". The aria is renowned for being difficult to perform well. It is not only technically demanding, but its dramatic context makes great demand even on a well-trained voice.
Pauline hit the high F boldly, and gave the kind of performance that lives in the imagination well after the show has ended. She has a majestic, impressive stage presence and astonishing voice.
The adaptation revels in the comedy of the opera, and the costume design matches its character. The three boys from the original work is replaced by three "spirits", three young women styled delightfully in the fashion of the 1960's Mowtown signature act The Supremes. Leigh Bishop dressed them in purple suits with huge rose corsages, and in floating, fur-trimmed pink nightgowns with soft and soft pink bunnies.
On the whole, the costumes were witty and creative and influences ranged from military chic to feathered fantasy.
The performances were lively and convincing, and the choral singing exceptional. If it was possible, it seemed that the cast was enjoying the show more than the audience; their enthusiasm was so infectious it was hard to believe they had been doing the show for more than a year.
The adaptation of the score, the modern African ambient with its tongue-in-cheek references to tradition and history combined with the spectacular design makes Impepe Yomlingo a magical, unforgettable experience. It's a joy to watch and much more. It's an original.
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