Saturday, July 9, 2011

Magic Fresh and Familiar: Peter Brook's "A Magic Flute" comes to Lincoln Center

Thanks to the availability of student tickets for Lincoln Center's summer festival events, I was able to treat myself to Peter Brook's luminous production of "A Magic Flute," Mozart's opera pared down and opened up into a fable so engaging, the strength of its ideas may not fully hit you until the end. Here there is no chorus, and no orchestra, but the central drama of Mozart's opera is intact. Additional dialogue in French replaced some of the Sprechstimme and changed and expanded other parts of it (the piece was originally put on in Paris.) Two actors with speaking roles, William Nadylam and Abdou Ouologuem, guide the characters through their trials and provide explanation where necessary. These disparate elements came together to make elegant and moving theater, with a simple space well used (production video here.)

Raphael Bremard (Monostatos) and Malia Bendi-Merad (Queen of the Night)
Brook took the drama of the piece seriously, without letting it become heavy-handed, and the audience responded well. Either the audience was liberated by the unfamiliar context from a mistaken notion that complete silence is always necessary in the opera house, or quite a number of them were experiencing Mozart's jokes for the first time. It made a refreshing change to not be the only one laughing (except once, when according to my companion the surtitles weren't funny at all. But Papageno was!) Brook's solution to the most notorious dramatic problems of Magic Flute was to omit or transform them: it is Monostatos' soul that is black, and the Queen of the Night's crime is not to be a woman in power, but to be proud and hypocritical in her use of that power. And when these are corrected, she participates, reconciled, in the society wo Mensch den Menschen liebt.

The singers, all strikingly lyrical, created portrayals that avoided caricature and worked admirably together as an ensemble. Some German was accented, and the French wasn't, but they were perfectly comprehensible in both languages. Raphael Brémard's Monostatos was more ambitious functionary than evil henchman, and he handled his stage business well. At its most rapid his patter got a little muddy, but he sang expressively. Dima Bawab made a delightful Papagena, gleefully squawky in her interpolated song (Mozart's setting of "Die Alte,") and sweetly pert in her duet with Papageno. As Sarastro, Luc Bertin-Hugault glowed with benevolence, and his warm lyric bass glowed too. Malia Bendi-Merad was a charismatic Queen of the Night, and the chiseled precision of her coloratura drew from the audience a reaction just short of an audible gasp. I could have wished for more legato phrasing from Tamino and Pamina. However, Jeanne Zaepffel sang sweetly and gave Pamina a very moving dignity; Adrian Strooper was convincing both in confusion and steadfastness. He didn't get to sing "O ew'ge Nacht," but the lightly-spun "Dies Bildnis" was transparently besotted.

Bawab and Dolié; (c) Pascal Victor
I have saved myself a paragraph for the Papageno of Thomas Dolié. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding Mozart's Naturmensch a more charming, because more multifaceted protagonist than his voyaging prince. Dolié's was a performance of apparently boundless energy, finely sung and irresistibly hilarious. Dolié has command of a very pleasing lyric baritone, and comic timing which was not only impeccable, but inspired.  His silent glances, or resigned shrugs, could be as eloquent as the spontaneity with which he infused the dialogues. And this worked, for me, because I felt that--in fine Mozartean spirit--this comedy was supported by a genuine sweetness, and was leavened with the moments of reflection and compassion which make Papageno such a real-seeming character, for all his antics. Dolié sang with fine phrasing and emotional nuance, and I was thoroughly charmed.

Tickets are still available for "A Magic Flute," which runs through July 17 with alternating casts.


  1. Ah! I am so disappointed I have to miss this production! Peter Brook is, of course, legendary, and I've been intrigued by his work with opera for years (he did a Salome with Dali 60 years ago, give or take, but it was not well-received...). His La Tragedie de Carmen gets performed pretty regularly, but he also did a Pelleas and Melisande w/piano (I thin the intimacy of a chamber production would really work in P&M's favor, and Debussy often translates to piano reduction quite beautifully). I am very glad to hear his Flute was successful. I wish there were more opera treatments like it. Lots of works popping up that seem to point to an actual future for the Music Theatre approach to opera.

  2. @Caitlin This was my first direct experience with Brook's opera work, and I was (obviously) hugely impressed and quite moved. My reaction, however, was more "You probably shouldn't try this unless you're a super-smart director with a good creative team" than "Lots of people should be doing this!" but I don't know much about similar/comparable works.

  3. I think many people share your views, but I think opera would be better served if we were more willing to let theatre directors (many of whom are very smart and supported by excellent creative teams) experiment with the form and repertoire. Brook is good, but his reputation was established at least 50 years ago. How established do these directors need to be before we let them take control of our sacred opera texts? It's absurd, to be frank. And we wonder why opera audiences are so old! Unfortunately, it's difficult to give other examples of this kind of treatment because, like Brook, directors who engage in this kind of in-depth production work (the regie-est of Regiteheatre!) tend to be very focused on theatricality and the very heart of performance, and they often share an attitude that recording performances of this kind is beside the point. Many directors will not be able to execute something like A Magic Flute, but it seems a shame to lose those who /could/ do well in the bath water (and I don't think our current success rate with opera directors within the system is high enough to justify our general aversion to trying something new). Surely opera is not so fragile.

    (I had once planned to study Brook and the other big European directors in the 60s, who really set the tone for modern theatre, and their experiences with opera. It's a dear subject! I apologize for the giant comment.)

    P.S. I will, once again, direct your attention to the Birmingham Opera and Graham Vick. Of course, the Birmingham Opera produces one opera a year, and I would guess that Brook's Flute was rehearsed for 6 months (give or take) before it premiered in France. You couldn't make a season of this kind of show, but I would be thrilled to see a major company involved in this kind of show even /once/ a season.

  4. @Caitlin No apologies! So many ideas here... I will try to respond in an organized fashion! I certainly don't think, and didn't mean to imply, that theater directors should only be allowed to touch the Sacrosanct Art of Opera after undergoing an apprenticeship of half a lifetime or so. I confess that, as an opera autodidact, the history of 20th-century staging traditions is something that I really haven't read much about (except regarding specific works.) The intimate/philosophical spin that Brook put on the production is one I'd be fascinated to see more of! The aspect of it which struck me as more perilous was the cutting of sections of music! and entire roles! The resulting opera-theater hybrid was fascinating. Is this where you'd say I need to loosen up and explore the possibilities? :)

    I've heard raving enthusiasm from attendees of Vick's productions, and the reviews alone are always fascinating reading. The recent warehouse-Otello sounded thrilling. Your speculation about rehearsal time is interesting; my friend and I were wondering aloud about that as we left, but came up with no ideas more specific than "lots." Also, I have a question for the ignorance of which I apologize: is there a relationship between audience age and the age of directors? (This seems implausible to me, I confess.) Is there a whole world of director-devotees out there waiting to be dragged into the opera house of which I know nothing??

  5. I do wish it was permissible to cut operas (apart from the acceptable cuts that have a historical precedent) and to create new and unconventional musical arrangements for opera. It's much harder, of course, because cutting music is much trickier than cutting words... which brings us to my other great dream that someday opera directors and conductors will have unique creative partnerships with each other and maintain working/collaborative relationships. (If we had more new works and work-shopping in opera, this would also revise the general fear of cutting, I think. Composers are often not as precious about their work as those enlisted to interpret it.)

    Brook is notorious for his long rehearsal times (months and months!). I wouldn't say there is a direct relationship between director age and audience age (David McVicar's only 45!), but opera seems to be unwilling to take risks on directors so they wait until they are already well established (in opera, in theatre, in film) - and I mean WELL established. By the time a theatre director is well-established, whatever innovative something they contributed is (probably) no longer new or edgy, so by the time it's made it to opera it's old hat and can't really take hold because that pioneering enthusiasm surrounding the something is gone (or that's my hypothesis). And the "edginess" or freshness of new approaches to theatre seems to get written off as purely aesthetic or superficial enough to be applied to any work without investigating the work in relationship to that specific approach to performance (and the American professional opera rehearsal environment is generally not conducive to investigating that relationship in the first place). I grudgingly admit that Peter Gelb is actually allowing for more experimentation with this Pastiche the Met will be presenting, but I think it will ultimately be regarded as a star vehicle and operatic-theatrical novelty rather than an actual means of exploring opera as theatre. But then there's the issue of space and orchestra in opera, which also makes it difficult to translate opera to the kind of small, experimental production that focuses on audience experience that is the direction a lot of theatre is going in. The other side of the equation being huge, event-based productions which /does/ work with opera, but it's expensive and time-consuming and hard to tour. The Spanish opera scene seems to really be at the front of that movement. (Check out La Fura dels Baus and Teatro Real's St. Francis in Madrid. I saw La Fura's Grand Macabre and was very impressed.)

    Bottom line - I think the age of the directors (or the way America - and sometimes Britain - likes to cling to directors who hit their stride in the 60s) is a symptom of 1. desperately trying to succeed by treating opera the way we did 50 years ago and 2. the American opera industry's terror of taking risks with the repertoire. Opera is like our ailing Victorian wife whose safety (and reputation) is ensured by keeping her locked up, but it is in fact killing her and driving her crazy.

    I think if "the kids" saw Interesting Theatre Group X is doing a production of Opera Y, it could be a gateway experience. A gateway experience that I secretly hope will have them proceed to go to regular opera, be horribly disappointed, demand more of what they saw at Interesting Theatre Group, and the established houses would be compelled to make /that/ kind of opera.)

    P.S. My experience is mostly with American opera production - hence the frequent qualifier.

  6. @Caitlin Ha! Fetch me the smelling salts while I swoon on a chaise longue, faintly murmuring "come scritto!" Seriously, though, I would LOVE to see more new works and workshopping, but remain angsty about cutting the beautifully structured works I know and love. I'm sure this is partly because of my historian-training attitudes to manuscripts.

    Interesting speculation about a new audience creating demand... after the Zeff Boheme I wanted to grab the neophytes who had come for a night out and tell them how much more exciting opera could be. I am excited by the steampunk elements in the Met pastiche sets, as well as the apparent messing with the gender issues of the Tempest.

    You raise a lot of interesting questions about the potential--and possible difficulties--of opera/theater cross-fertilization. So many things to think about! Please write a blog post or essay working with the extended simile of opera as Yellow Wallpaper heroine. :) Also would love to hear more thoughts about what sort of results director-conductor partnerships could have (it sounds great, but then I have difficulty imagining what it would actually mean.)

  7. You are certainly not alone in your attitudes toward manuscripts. For decades the work of the musicologist was primarily archival (which is probably music people tend to be text-fiends)! If it makes you feel better, it's really only the baroque and bel canto repertoire that I would take the pruning shears to. And some 19th century French stuff. Probably some of the classical operas... (does Figaro /need/ to be 4 hours long? ;P) The Germans have me in their grip!

    I admit, the concept art they've released for the pastiche has piqued my interest, and steampunk is definitely opera-appropriate. You should take a look at Opera's Second Death by Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Žižek. You should also watch the BBC adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White! (As soon as I get that on DVD, I'm sure everyone I know will be forced to watch it.)

    As for director/conductor, I think the greatest benefit will (hopefully) be the elimination of the subtly awkward power politics of the opera rehearsal room. It's often hard to tell who's /really/ in charge. And if the director and conductor are simply presented as a unified front, publicly and in rehearsal, I think the audience is more likely to think of the production as a unified whole (or, to avoid sounding overly Gesamtkunstwerk-y, as a collaborative process in which those at the helm are on the same page). I've read a lot of reviews that seem to say "the production was a mess but wasn't Maestro So-and-so wonderful?", which reasserts the primacy of opera as a musical form (in which case, why do we spend so much time and money on the staging?) and throws the director under the bus when the situation is actually too complicated to be solely the director's fault.

    We must find a better venue for such discussions than blog comments! I could talk about this all day (and I'm sure Sophie's heard all of my opera arguments at least twice). Thank you for responding to all of my lengthy responses (no matter how scandalous!) - most people would give up after the second comment. XD

  8. @Caitlin Ah, well then, my sentimental attachments are less affected, but my manuscript-loving sensibilities are still nervous! Gewaltig viel Noten, lieber Mozart... yes, I want every single one. :) I have looked at Opera's Second Death, but have yet to give the whole thing the careful read it deserves. Yay Gesamtkunstwerk and simplified politics. Under the "about me" section on the right I have a designated opera e-mail suitable for endless discussions. :)


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