A slimmer 'Magic Flute'

Leila Benhamza and Jean-Christophe Born in one of three alternating casts of "A Magic Flute," director Peter Brook's 90-minute version of Mozart's opera.
Leila Benhamza and Jean-Christophe Born in one of three alternating casts of "A Magic Flute," director Peter Brook's 90-minute version of Mozart's opera. (PASCAL VICTOR / ArtComArt)
Posted: July 08, 2011

NEW YORK - How often do you want an opera to be at least a half-hour longer?

So it is with the radically reimagined, 90-minute version of Mozart's The Magic Flute, playing through July 17 at the Lincoln Center Festival. The reimagining was done by Peter Brook, the British-born, Paris-based director who made theater history with epics such as The Mahabharata but has more deeply infiltrated theatrical consciousness with his slimmed-down versions of Carmen and Pelleas et Melisande - both of which are periodically mounted in Philadelphia by Curtis Opera Theatre.

They're stimulating challenges to opera traditionalists, inspiring young artists to think theatrically as well as vocally, and, in general, allowing these grand pieces to maneuver like speed boats. This newest from the 86-year-old Brook is more interventionist than the others. However absorbing, the production imported from Paris' Theatre des Bouffes du Nord - titled A Magic Flute - is a prime instance of solving one problem but creating others.

Written as popular theater with spoken dialogue and a fantastical plot about a young prince finding enlightenment, The Magic Flute has always lacked inner coherence and outward cohesion. If any opera needed Brook's touch (or the smaller environs of the Lynch Theater at John Jay College), it's this one. Brook's stated concept is to strip away elements that Mozart was induced to employ by the nature of the genre and go for the message of universal brotherhood underneath.

To that end, the overture is reduced to its opening chords. Some of the best-loved arias for the character Papageno are truncated. Franck Krawczyk, who created his own piano version replacing the orchestra, employs bits from other Mozart works as underscoring. Papagena (Mrs. Papageno, who is oddly underserved in the original) is given one of Mozart's concert arias, the bawdy "Die halte" - to good effect.

The Three Ladies and Three Spirits are gone, but there's a non-singing guiding spirit (a handsome guy with rasta braids) who brings the right people together at the right time. The set is simple: vertical bamboo sticks reconfigured in evocative ways as well as a flute that levitates.

The plot is cleaner, but the original opera was also a menu of music that allowed you to enjoy the journey whether or not you cared about the destination. Less Papageno music means less knockabout comedy that acts as a counterpoint to the underlying seriousness. You miss longer stage time with these winning characters.

Brook's casts are often uneven (Mahabharata, for one), perhaps because his process time doesn't allow him a pick of the best. And with Mozart's sometimes-steep vocal demands (the Queen of the Night still has all her arias), few in the July 6 cast, one of three, were fully up to snuff, the exception being Thomas Dolie as Papageno. Still, the production is a stimulating if unfinished encounter with an alternative vision of the opera that's more thoughtful and sensitive than much of what passes for director's opera in Europe.


See a video of, and read excerpts from, Peter Brook's news conference at http://www.philly.com/

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Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

"A Magic Flute" plays at Lincoln Center Festival through July 17. Information: 212-721-6500 or www.lincolncenterfestival.org.

 

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