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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo)
Young Vic Theatre Winter 2007-2008; Duke of York's Theatre Spring 2008

This is going to be something of a minority report, I must confess.

This South African adaptation of Mozart's opera was a big hit at the Young Vic and is likely to succeed in its West End transfer, so it must be doing something right. I just didn't get it.

To me, it seems neither fish nor fowl, the producers unsure of whether they wanted to be true to Mozart, do Mozart with an African flavour, or thoroughly adapt and jazz it up, so that they wound up doing a half-hearted job of each.

There are moments in each of those modes that work, but I kept feeling that they should either have been much more adventurous, or much less.

(A brief reminder - the opera's convoluted and occasionally mystical plot is essentially a reversal of a fairy tale staple. The hero is sent by the queen to rescue her daughter from the evil magician, but halfway through we discover that the magician is the good guy and the queen evil.)

It certainly starts off excitingly, with Mozart's overture made wholly fresh by being played on African instruments, and from time to time there are moments when an aria will segue into African rhythms or a chorus number into African dance.

The titular flute is dubbed by a jazz trumpet, and the three Spirits who intervene to assist the lovers are played as a Motown girl group.

But those remain no more than token gestures toward Africanising either the music or production, with at least as many moments done absolutely straight and others in some nebulous midway style.

It's that lack of a consistent tone that kept the production from ever really catching fire for me, either as opera or adaptation, and that made too much of it seem like directionless filler.

Some seemingly random bits of dialogue are in languages other than English, but the combination of accents, some muddy singing diction and the inherent difficulty of opera in English means that you won't always find the English sections significantly clearer.

In the mode of opera productions, it is being done with alternates in all the principle roles, and unless you hunt down the information you may not know (or care) who you are seeing.

On this particular evening, the high-operatic Queen of the Night and the musical-comedy-realistic Papageno were both first-rate, though they seemed to come out of two different shows, while the lovers were clearly cast more for their voices than their stage presence (a practice long abandoned by opera companies), so that their presence onstage contributed little.

I must repeat that there are many who find what I thought half-a-loaf more than enough, and this production is particularly attracting family groups whose children have moved beyond The Lion King.

I can only report that neither I nor my Mozart-loving 14-year-old companion were ever more than momentarily captured by it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Magic Flute 2007