Peter Brook’s Flute-less Magic Flute at the Lincoln Center Festival

Center Festival: Mozart/Peter Brook, A Magic Flute: Peter Brook (director), Soloists, Franck Krawczyk (piano),Lynch Theater,New York, 8.7.2011 (SSM)

Director: Peter Brook
Freely adapted by Peter BrookFranck Krawczyk, and Marie-Hélène Estienne

Singers (second of three alternating casts)

Tamino: Antonio Figueroa
Pamino: Agnieszka Sławińska
Queen of the Night: Leila Benhamza
Papageno: Virgile Frannais
Sarastro: Patrick Bolleire
Papagena: Betsabée Haas
Monostros:  Jean-Christophe Born
Actors: William NadylamAbdou Ouologuem

Pianist: Franck Krawczyk



William Nadylam, Abdou Ouologuem, Antonio Figueroa, Agnieszka Sławinska Photographer: © Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

What would a performance of The Magic Flute sound like if there were no flute, without an overture, without the three boys and the three ladies, no orchestra, shortened or elided arias, juxtaposed scenes, a singer singing a ditty not in the original opera – plus music from other works of Mozart’s? It would not be The Magic Flute, but A Magic Flute. Peter Brook’s production makes no pretensions of being just another elaborate, grandiose, modern, relevant, even magical version of Mozart’s masterpiece. In some ways, it might be better defined as an “anti-opera.”  Brooks attempts to get to the core of this work, stripping away all the irrelevant parts so that even when it comes to scenery all we are left with is a stage filled with bamboo poles.

This version would certainly be a disappointment to purists. Sung to a libretto “freely adapted” by Brook, the pianist Franck Krawczyk and Brook’s one-time assistant, Marie-Hélène Estienne, this production is more theatrical than operatic. To be precise, if you break the production down into three elements, staging, acting and singing, no one part is given undue emphasis. All are of equal value. The way the cast responded to the closing applause epitomized this equality. No cast member stepped out of rank to receive his or her individual ovations. In some ways, the production has the sensibility of the “radical” theater of the 1960’s: works done at La Mama, the experimental theater of Jerzy Grotowski and Brook’s work informed by the Theater of Cruelty and Theater of the Absurd.

 “Absurdly,” the production was done as a multi-lingual singspiel, the “sing” being done in German and the “spiel” in French (and a couple of words in English). The suicide attempt by the hapless Papageno was staged with a symbolic tree that seemed straight out of the opening scene of Waiting for Godot. The tree, created from crossed bamboo poles, looked like the beginning of a game of Hangman. Two actors, William Nadylam and Abdou Ouologuem, fill in for characters absent in this production and act as a Greek chorus as well. Both were also adept at handling the bamboo props – shaping them into a temple, a wall or a prison.

Masonic elements that Mozart emphasized were secondary to the philosophical principles of Sarastro. Brook also weakens the vengeful evil power of the Queen of the Night, making her eventual submission to Sarastro’s beliefs seem inevitable. Every scene was compressed: the arias shortened and the da capos not taken.

The singers in this cast change from performance to performance.  I saw the second cast and found the singers adequate to the demands of their roles, only Pamino, played by Agnieszka Slawinska, excelled in her arias.  Leila Benhamza, in the demanding role of Queen of the Night, hit the impossibly high notes in her two major arias, but only doing so by shouting them.

The most interesting performer was on stage, but neither sang nor acted: it was the pianist, Franck Krawczyk. Aside from his technical prowess, Krawczyk’s adaptation was right on the mark, vibrant during the lighter scenes and foreboding during the darker ones. The moments when music was needed to provide an interlude that isn’t in the original score were filled with music from other Mozart works. They blended in so well that in an interlude following the three trials Krawczyk’s interpolation of the improvisatory opening of Mozart’s Fantasia K. 397 seemed totally appropriate.

It was interesting to note how some of the arias in this performance foreshadow the style of Schubert’s songs. In Sarastro’s final aria, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen,” the piano accompanies the singer with Schubert-like runs, ripples and quick modulations. Emotionally, one feels the commonality between these two doomed composers: Mozart with his dark undertones and Schubert’s morbidly fixated songs.

While this might not be a version of the Magic Flute that I would want to see regularly, it is good sometimes to see a performance of a work that clears away the cobwebs, refreshing parts that have begun to sound hackneyed. It allows you to rethink works that have become war horses. Here Peter Brook, at his late age, successfully sees and connects with Mozart’s autumnal vision of what man must do to be allowed to enter the temple of the next world.

Stan Metzger

Performances continue through July 17th.