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September 19, 2014

Isango Ensemble's Magic Flute Pageantry

Pageant. The Isango Ensemble's interpretation of Mozart's The Magic Flute is an elaborate, colorful, and dramatic presentation reaching out to the public that speaks to African tradition and thereby meets the definition of pageant. The slightly less than two-hour love story with one intermission is joyful and dance focused. It is not your grandmother's opera.

A quick summation of the story is that Prince Tamino falls in love with Pamina whom her wicked mother, the Queen of the Night, says is being held hostage by Sarastro. magic fluteSarastroSM.jpgSarastro is her protector and when he learns Tamino is in love with her, he gives Tamino a series of challenges to test the young prince's leadership abilities. Sarastro is looking for someone to replace him as leader of a secret brotherhood. Papageno is enlisted to help Tamino and if Papageno does well, he too is promised a wife.

As the Dresser absorbed the September 18, 2014, performance sponsored by Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre, comparisons between Isango's creation and Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts surfaced. Pageant is also how the Dresser would describe Four Saints. However, Four Saints is more a parade, and a religious parade at that.

Founded in 2000, the Isango Ensemble, a nonprofit seeking to work with its "clash of cultures, races, and experiences," selects performers who are at various levels of artistic achievement from townships around its base in Cape Town, South Africa. The Ensemble members work collectively to create each production. Like the all Black cast Virgil Thomson chose for Four Saints in Three Acts, the Black performers of Isango bring something unexpected and new to the opera written by two white men, composer Amadeus Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. In the case of Four Saints, again an opera written by two Caucasian artists, Thomson said he chose the Black cast--a first in 1934 in the United States--because they had better diction and less prejudice against Gertrude Stein's experimental writing that included such phrases as "Four saints prepare for saints it make it well well fish" and "pigeons on the grass, alas."

Ah, diction. The Isango interpretation of Flute is rendered in English--the original was in German, but the Isango English comes with a South African accent. Few of the Isango players except Zamile Gantana as Papagena and Nontsusa Louw as Papagena delivered clearly enunciated English. Surtitles would have helped but given the pageantry of the production, the Dresser did not occupy herself with the problems of word delivery as she recently had when Washington National Opera partnered with numerous other opera companies to produce multiple English-versions of Flute directed by Harry Silverstein.

In fact, the Dresser didn't focus on how the Isango voices could not fill the Lansburgh Theatre. While Siyasanga Mbuyazwe as Queen of the Night executed a pleasing "The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart," this coloratura aria, directed against the protector of the Queen of the Night's daughter, is supposed to electrify and a listener should feel the Queen's hateful vibration inside his or her body. Instead what the Dresser felt were the energizing slapping of unshod feet on the raked stage and the warm tones of the marimba orchestra that flanked both sides of the raked portion of the stage. Also exciting the airwaves were the players who danced as their mallets hit the keys. And these musicians were alternately the dancers, the actors, the singers showing an impressive display of versatility and unlimited joyful energy. Also inside the listener's body at various times were the beating of drums.

Two aspects of African culture heighten British-born South African theater director-filmmaker Mark Dornford-May's Isango production. The first is the tribal meeting of Sarastro's secret brotherhood showing ritual hand washing and handshaking in a particular order according the rank of its members. The second deals with Dornford-May's program notes detailing the possible connection of an African tale to his adaptation of The Magic Flute. The African tale relates that lightning is caused by the andlati bird, which lives in high mountains. It causes death and destruction during storms. Tamino SM.jpgTo stop this bird, someone courageous must go with a flute to tame the destructive bird. What's unusual is the sound of the flute in Dornford-May's production is actually a trumpet. The more vigorous sound of the trumpet brings attention that this flute, still representing the sound of a bird, is the fearsome andlati.

Continue reading "Isango Ensemble's Magic Flute Pageantry" »

September 23, 2014

Sirens & Undertow of Florencia in the Amazon

WNO Florencia in the Amazon 4 Sm1.jpg

If you are a Puccini fan, the siren's call awaits with Washington National Opera's new co-production of Florencia in the Amazon.

On September 22, 2014, the Dresser experienced composer Daniel Catán's opera with the poetic Spanish-language libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain. The Dresser thought she would have to lash herself to her seat or risk being sucked into the lush projections showing Henri Rousseau-like jungles that surprisingly came alive with flying things--birds and butterflies--and, oh, there, in the corner, a shy monkey.

Under the baton of Carolyn Kuan, Catán's shimmering music, while lyrically accessible and sweet, maintains a fever pitch that caused the sirens-singing effect, particularly in act one of this two-act opera with a run time just over two hours including one intermission.

Inspired by the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, especially his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, the opera, narrated by magic realism character named Riolobo (river wolf) concerns the steamship El Dorado traveling down the Amazon River from Leticia to Manaus in anticipation of a performance by the renown diva Florencia Grimaldi. Florencia, who is traveling incognito on the El Dorado, plans to reopen the Manaus opera house.

Most of the characters in this opera are struggling with how to love, including Florencia (sung as a diva should sing with volume and emotion by American Soprano Christine Goerke). After a 20 year hiatus, the opera singer is drawn back to her native country by the memory of a former lover, a butterfly hunter named Christóbal.

The production, directed anew by WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello--Zambello was the creating director for the Houston Opera world premiere in 2003--is co-produced by LA Opera and San Francisco Opera. It has one set--the steamboat that is periodically revolved to show front, back, and sides. What provides scenic variety are projections (like a storm-filled or sunrise skies), deeply colorful lighting, and the river spirits, a company of accomplished artful dancers.

The Dresser offers this list of favorites from Florencia in the Amazon:

This line--"Love was made up by God on his birthday."

The performance of American tenor Patrick O'Halloran as Aracdio, the seasick nephew of The Captain. (Arcadio's dream is to pilot the boat.)
WNO Florencia in the Amazon 3 - sm2.jpg
The story detail that jettison's the young writer Rosalba's notebook into the river and which Aracdio retrieves with the cooperation of the River Spirits who tease first by tossing around the precious notebook. The notebook contains Rosalba's made-up history about the famous opera star Florencia Grimaldi. Rosalba doesn't know Florencia is on the boat but talks to the diva revealing her (Rosalba's) wish to interview this opera idol.

The sparkling rain that falls.

Least favorite element of the production is the costume for Riolobo (played by American baritone Norman Garrett) when he is lowered from the heavens as a mystical bird with spikey wings and pleads with the gods of the river "Do not destroy the world." The costume makes Riolobo look like he has come to destroy the world.

The Dresser provides Gary Stein's poem "The Undertow: Hatteras Island" as final words to this review. Stein's poetic narrator advises to "forget the ways we know" because the ocean's undertow somehow appeals to a deeper yearning for surrender. This is exactly what Zambello's fine new production requires--surrender to the poetic elements with the faith that the storms of love, body, and nature will not kill you.


And as many times as the ocean curls
itself into an arm and slams
me to shore scattering
memory like dice, I bob up, smiling
postcards and snake my body sideways
to the breakers for another throw.

Reason should prevail or the pain
of knees scraping the shore of all
its shells. But I am leaning out, letting
the undertow suck me down the beach,
laughing like pebbles in the foam.

You may say this idiot's dance,
this giddy, numb surrender to the moon
is what we face each morning--
snake eyes teasing with another chance.

It is not. We predict the ocean now.
If you gauge the tides, the wind, and chart
the bottom you can call a wave down
to the inch. But knowing doesn't ease
the ride, doesn't tell you how you'll
hit the sand or when to close your eyes.

Try to forget the ways we know. The undertow
is a kind of yearning. Pretend this poem
is a shell. It is a shell. Gather it
around your ear until you hear surf, faintly,
as far as the moon, but surf. Surf.
Each distant wave carries
further from the beach.

by Gary Stein
from Between Worlds

Copyright © 2014 Gary Stein

Photo credit: Scott Suchman

About September 2014

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in September 2014. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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