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THE MAGIC FLUTE (article first published : 2007-10-18)

None of the pictures I have seen of William Kentridge's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute has come close to showing the sheer spectacle of what is presented on stage. Visually, this Magic Flute is staggering.

There is an enormous amount to look at: animated film sequences projected onto screens and gauzes; extraordinary lighting effects; Masonic symbolism to decipher. And, of course, there are the performers, the action and the English surtitles. There is no sense that this is something only to be listened to, a static operatic experience where the music is paramount. The projections, always changing, always fascinating, are probably the reason why still photographs seem so dull in comparison.

The production, though not with the current South African cast (bar one notable exception in Kaiser Nkosi's Sarastro), premiered in Brussels in 2005, but Kentridge said all along that it must come to South Africa. Rand Merchant Bank put up the sponsorship - which must have been massive - and set in train the two seasons, each of three weeks, in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It has been a complete sell-out - two months before the curtain went up in Cape Town at the beginning of September, 90% of all available tickets for both cities had been sold, and the remaining 10% followed quickly.

There has been some criticism of the production during the run, coming from two sides. One faction complains that the staging is so overwhelming that it downplays Mozart; the other view is that, without the visual excitement, musically this Magic Flute is a bit less than magical.

As regards the first, I totally disagree. Kentridge's vision of the opera is coherent, intelligent, and - above all - playful. The dancing rhinoceros, when Tamino's flute tames the wild beasts, has a wacky, almost Pythonesque, charm - part of the enchantment of the whole concept. The production runs for around three hours, which can seem a very long time in a theatre. But there was never a sense that things were dragging, or that the audience was beginning to shuffle. As a total experience, The Magic Flute is a triumph.

The singers acquit themselves well, if not always brilliantly. I was sorry not to see KZN favourite Angela Gilbert, a Music Revival regular, sing the Queen of the Night, but she is sharing the role with Marion Roberts who was on stage for the performance I attended. The staging for her great aria, with whirling stars coming out of the darkness, is one of the highlights.

Musa Nkuna and Angela Kerrison are an appealing Tamino and Pamina, and if Theo Magongoma's voice is a little small for the huge spaces of the Civic Theatre, his talent as a comic actor carries him through as Papageno. For me, the star is Kaiser Nkosi, whose Sarastro dominates the stage whenever he appears. South Africa has some fine operatic talent on show here.

Ten hours in the car to get to Johannesburg and back was a price worth paying to see this one. - Margaret von Klemperer

Recently published by David Krut and edited by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, “William Kentridge: Flute” treats readers to two hundred pages of his working notes for the opera. See Literature pages)




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