‘ISANGO ENSEMBLE OF SOUTH AFRICA IN “THE MAGIC FLUTE”
When: Through Sept. 28
Where: Skyline Stage, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
If there is anything even slightly resembling an afterlife, it is a good bet that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was sitting somewhere on Cloud Nine on Thursday night, looking down at Navy Pier’s Skyline Stage, and smiling blissfully as he watched his transcendent opera, ‘The Magic Flute,” being performed by the Isango Ensemble of Cape Town, South Africa.
Mozart might not have immediately recognized the title of his work, “Impepe Yomlingo,” or the mix of languages used (it is being sung in English, with dialogue spoken in South African languages, including the company’s native Xhosa). And the instrumentation (a miraculous orchestra of chromatic marimbas, along with various drums, a horn and even water-filled bottles), conducted by co-music director Mandisi Dyantysis (who suggests a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley), might have taken him by surprise at first.
Yet within seconds he would have realized that this production of his opera — which grew out of his own close collaboration with a theater company, and spins a fairy tale with an exotic setting about two young men who must endure many tests on their way to finding true love — is exactly what he imagined, and more.
This is no artificial cultural crossover, but a brilliant, spirit-lifting, wildly inspired and wholly seamless fusion of European and African traditions. The singing is operatic and virtuosic, but a coloratura soprano aria can easily be complemented by the ululations of an African singer. The temple priests of Mozart’s imagined world morph just as readily into the gathering of men who sit in a circle in this African kingdom. And if the spirits here happen to remind you of a girl group from the 1960s, that makes perfect sense, too. Leigh Bishops’s costumes also fuse cultures, with a whimsical mix of everything from traditional African robes to feathery couture, and a group of female “birds” outfitted in pink jumpsuits.
The production, which has already been seen in London, Paris, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. — and will be at Navy Pier through Sunday only, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s invaluable World’s Stage Series — is the brainchild of Mark Dornford-May, the British director and adapter who co-founded Isango in 2006, and his wife, Pauline Malefane, its co-music director and the actress, who also sings the fiendishly difficult role of Queen of the Night.
The ensemble of 30 actors and musicians, drawn from the townships around Cape Town, are all multi-talented, often singing and dancing and then quickly taking their place at a marimba or drum alongside a steeply raked stage with trap doors leading to a fiery underworld, some scaffolding, and little more than a white sheet used as a projection screen.
Playing the young lovers on Thursday were Mhlekazi Mosiea as prince Tamino and Zolina Ngejane as his beloved Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night. But it was Zamile Gantana, a man almost as round as he is tall, and amazingly graceful, who stole the show in a marvelous portrayal of that mischievous and lovable comic character, Papageneo, the bird-catcher who also yearns to catch a girl. And he was ideally paired with Siyasanga Mbuyazwe, equally round and mischievous — and the possessor of an astonishing voice — as his Papagena. Ayanda Eleki brought a magisterial presence and remarkable bass voice to the role of Sarastro, the fearsome high priest.
The 1500 seats of Skyline Stage — an ideal venue for this production — were nearly full on opening night. Word must have gotten out that this “Magic Flute” is a rare and exhilarating experience that should not be missed.
NOTE: For a video excerpt of the work visit www.chicagoshakes.com/magicflute.]