Perth Festival: A Magic Flute ~ theatre notes

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Perth Festival: A Magic Flute

Mozart's The Magic Flute often seems to me like a quintessence of opera, equal parts nonsense and delight. It's an absurd fairytale, with all that form's arbitariness and illogic. It also includes some of Mozart's most sublime melodies and dazzlingly playful conceits.
The arcane Masonic symbolism that informs much of the story suggests a multitude of possible meanings, but the truth is that this opera has never made much sense to me. Perhaps I wished to resist the sense that is there to be made: The Magic Flute is above all else a celebration of masculine power subordinating the feminine to its proper secondary place.

Peter Brook's A Magic Flute. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

And yet the opera's nonsense in no way obscures its capacity to delight. It flowers out of the irresistible sensual power of the music, which bypasses the conscious mind and subjects us to the operatic ordeal of beautiful anguish.  Maybe beauty has its own wisdom and its own subversion. Or maybe it is, as has so often been argued, a seduction that obscures a darker intent.

Peter Brook's stripped down version, A Magic Flute, preserves both the nonsense and the joy. You'll go a long way before you see theatre this elegant. Here a lifetime's theatrical thought is distilled in a painstaking search for lucidity: the simplest, most pregnant gesture; the least obstrusive, most effective design elements; the most transparent performances. This is exquisite theatre-making; Brook and his collaborators Franck Krawczyk and Marie-Hélène Estienne have created a performance language that is as pure in its own way as Noh.

The original two-act opera is reduced to 90 minutes, with the score rendered down to Krawczyk's lone piano, played live on stage. The set is austerely naked, with a forest of bamboo poles set upright on bases; the subtle lighting, with a couple of exceptions, is designed to expose the whole stage. All the focus is on performance (there are two actors as well as the seven singers) and voice. Stripped of overture and decoration, the story unfolds swiftly. The songs are in German, the dialogue in French, and the surtitles are suspended low over the stage, so they are easy to incorporate into watching the performance.

Brook's company has brought two casts of singers who play on alternate nights, and it's hard not to wonder what qualities the different performers bring to the opera. What you get is the precise physicality that is a hallmark of Brook productions, most obvious in Virgile Frannais's sublime clowning in the role of Papageno, or Jean-Christophe Born's gorgeously vain Monostatos, but also in the stylised movements of the actors (Abdou Ouologuem and Stéphane Soo Mongo) who embody the various spirits that move the story. 

The singing, in line with the production, is theatrical rather than operatic: lightness is all. Roger Padullés (Tamino) and Lenka Turcanova (Pamina) make beautiful music together as the young lovers: Turcanova's aria, in which she swears to kill herself because she believes that Tamino no longer loves her, is sheer heart-stopping loveliness. Leila Benhamza as the Queen of the Night likewise nails the famous coloratura: but this is the first time I've ever really been struck by what she's saying in that aria. All that glorious music is the Queen of the Night seething with vengefulness and hatred, urging her daughter, on pain of eternal separation from her mother, to murder her enemy Sarastro.

Brook's version forces you to contemplate the meanings of the opera, since the music here is a function of its dramaturgy, rather than (as is more usual) the other way around. The plot is driven by a custody battle between the Queen of the Night and Sarastro (Jan Kucera) over Pamina. According to Sarastro, who is presented as the ne plus ultra of patriarchal wisdom, Pamina can't remain with her mother the Queen, who as a widow uncontrolled by a man's authority is shown to be the personification of evil. The Queen's fate is, of course, to be cast out into eternal darkness, along with her rebellious ally, the slave Monostatos.

Pamina, safely tethered to her lover Tamino, shows the proper place for a woman is under the safe protection of a man. She undergoes the ordeals of initiation, just as Tamino does, but she is present only as the prince's helpmeet: as a woman, she would not be initiated on her own. The lack of musical decor makes the message absolutely plain - when it was stated baldly in the show that women must be subject to male authority, I heard people in the audience gasp.

The class politics are equally questionable: the simple bird-catcher Papageno, a man of innocent appetites and ignoble ambitions, finds love with Papagena (Martine Midoux). That famous scene is one of the highlights of the production, a tour de force of comic invention. And what is their love? Making little Papageni, in the tradition of working classes everywhere. In short, not much of the opera bears very close examination if you have problems with kings, and especially if you have problems with patriarchies. And yet, even with the music unable to carry us past the opera's meanings on a sweep of feeling, the whole is bewitchingly lovely. Oh art. You are not moral.

The benignity of this production leaves the question open: is this stern exposure of meaning a critique or celebration of the opera's argument? I guess that's for the audience to decide: the production simply presents a story. What Brook and his team offer is startlingly lucid theatre that shimmers with comic wit and feeling, a thing of rare grace and innocence. Perhaps its innocence is the most ambiguous quality of all.

A Magic Flute, after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, freely adapted by Peter Brook, Franck Krawczyk and Marie-Hélène Estienne, directed by Peter Brook. CICT/Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Perth Festival. Octagon Theatre, UWA, until February 25.

Disclaimer: Theatre Notes visited Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival.


Alan Skinner said...

Very chagrined that I know I won't get to see this. A great opera and a magnificent director. I am truly jealous. Whilst it was not by any means the first theatre I had ever seen, Brook's Dream in the early 70s, (when I was still a teenager, let's make that clear) changed my view of theatre. I've followed him closely but sadly, it was the only piece of his I have managed to see on stage.

You write,

'... is this stern exposure of meaning a critique or celebration of the opera's argument?'

Not having seen this production - and not having right to speak for Mr Brook - I am treading on thin ice, but I'd hazard a guess that in his production, a "yes" to either would be wrong. Certainly, the answer would be "No" to the second part but not necessarily "Yes' to the first. I have no hesitation in trusting your assessment that Brook does force the audience to contemplate the meaning, but does it have to be in the either/or way you state it? Why can't it be that Brook (or any director) trusts in the intelligence and sensibilities of the public without having to labour the obvious? Particularly in opera, where the text is the poor, imperfect cousin in any case.

In general, though, the question is one that vexes me about a great deal of drama, even that of the not-all-that-distant-past. How do we deal with unacceptable elements within a play that has other elements of great value and relevance? Think of Strindberg's Miss Julie, for instance.

In a way, your own review seems to me to answer in the same way. You beautifully convey the sense of a production with elegance, joy and beauty. Perhaps within that context, the unpalatable meanings are not so much critiqued as laid before the audience in stark contrast. Perhaps it isn't so innocent; perhaps Brook realised that grace and innocence have their own revelatory power.

Or maybe everything I've written is just bloody nonsense and I'm just feeling grumpy because I'll miss this.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Alan - how lucky you were to see A Midsummer Night's Dream! With one or two excemptions, I've been forced to see most of his work on film. This is Brook's last as artistic director for Theatre des Bouffes Nord, so I guess that balances out - you saw one of his first works, I saw one of his last.

I can't imagine that such a thoughtful production didn't consider those issues within the libretto. And yes, I'm quite sure Brook and his team don't feel that things have to be spelt out to audiences. If anything, it shows quite clearly that art isn't about a "message": the experience of the opera is so much more than that. But it's not about ignoring meaning/s either, and although I think the central argument is quite clear, there are all sorts of ambiguities and questions that arise out of its clarities. Puts things in interesting tension!