ArtsEmerson Duo: Mozartian and Mahabhratian Magic

Pauline Malefane in "The Magic Flute" (photo: Keith Pattison)
Jean-Claude Carriere in "Mahabhrata" (photo: EnActe Arts)

The local arts scene is frequently a complex and varied one, never more so than at the start of the current theatrical season. Such was the case this weekend, which afforded the opportunity to see a couple of inventive and unusual creations, playing contemporaneously under a single artistic umbrella, Arts Emerson; on the same day, one could be confronted by such disparate geographies as South Africa, in the form of an adaptation of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”, and India, in the form of a narrative of the classic saga, “Mahabharata”. It made for a fascinating cultural mashup.

With its familiar overture suddenly performed as though never heard before, with drums and marimbas, this “Magic Flute” was not the typical form of this deservedly popular allegorical opera, here adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May for the Isango Ensemble of Cape Town. While the basic libretto and music are essentially the same, the sound is not, making for a unique reintroduction to Mozart’s magic. A production by Eric Abraham and the Young Vic (which won the 2008 Olivier Award in London as Best Musical Revival), this was a revelation. With a fabulous cast of some two dozen dancing singers (actually quadruple threats, as actors and instrumentalists as well) led by the incomparable Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night, it’s a revival in several senses. Standouts included the Tamino (Mhlekazi “WhaWha” Mosiea), the Papageno (Zamile Gantana) and most especially the Sarastro (the amazing bass Ayanda Tikolo). The Musical Arrangment by Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis (who also conducted) and lively Choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana are something to hear and see. With a raked Set Design by Dornford-May and Dan Watkins, Lighting Design by Mannie Manim and Costume Design by Leigh Bishop, this morality tale was given a whole new lease on life. If you think you’ve seen the definitive “Magic Flute” sometime in the past, think again. This was the “Magic Flute” of the present and the future. It’s not unlike rediscovering the pleasures of being in the company of an old friend, with suddenly renewed vim and vigor filling the Cutler Majestic Theater as perhaps never before.

Nearby, at the Paramount Theater, one of the cinema’s true giants narrated one of the two greatest Hindu sagas (the other being “Ramayana”), “Mahabharata”. One of the longest works ever written (with over 100,000 stanzas, fifteen times the length of the Bible), composed by many hands over many centuries, it survives as one of the most powerful guides to moral behavior. This version, originally a nine-hour play, subsequently a five-hour film, is presented in a much-trimmed ninety minute narration by Jean-Claude Carrière. His name may not be immediately familiar, but his film work is; he was Oscar-nominated for his screenplays for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, “That Obscure Object of Desire” and “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. He is also the recipient of the just-announced, truly rare and extraordinary honor of a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. His experience in directing showed as he played a wandering minstrel and a traveling bard (common in ancient India) giving voice to the oral epic. (Actually, projections of the cast of characters, and surtitles in English, might have helped those unfamiliar with the saga). He was assisted by expert sitarist Amie Maciszewski (playing for all of those ninety minutes), the sublime dancer Sunanda Narayanan and the vocalizing of Hari Narayanan, as well as Yusuf Buxamusa as the Young Man to whom the storyteller directs his tale. The relating of the story of the war between two families, the Pandava (five children of the gods) and the Kavrava (a hundred sons of a king whose legitimacy is questionable), at least for those who knew the basic facts of the narrative, made the simple but powerful performance, mixing family histories, myths and legends, a moving experience.

Each of these two distinctly different theatrical presentations made its own contribution to the local arts scene. Yet one thing about each of them was strikingly similar; they transported you to lands and ideas you’d never before encountered quite this way. (It would also help enormously to be versed in the source material of each of these works). Magic takes many forms, and these surely made for a unique duo.

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