This South African Magic Flute With Eight Marimbas Is Unexpectedly Thrilling

Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the NightEXPAND
Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night
Keith Pattison

There are many ways to tell a story, and Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s beloved 1791 opera The Magic Flute is certainly pliable enough to have undergone numerous mutations and changes of setting over the past 223 years, including Barrie Kosky’s visually fanciful expressionist staging at L.A. Opera last year.

But Isango Ensemble’s supremely inventive production, directed by Mark Dornford-May and making its West Coast debut at the Broad Stage this week, is beyond astonishing. What would seem to be merely a cute gimmick — the rearrangement of Mozart’s score largely for an octet of marimbas — turns out to be oddly moving. The marimba players are always alertly dynamic, whether hammering out Mozart’s brassier declamations with foreboding intensity or evoking a soft murmur of welling strings with a delicate, butterfly-wing fluttering of mallets.

The South African group’s co-founder Pauline Malefane and conductor Mandisi Dyantyus pepper their arrangements with drums, sheet metal, chime-like bottles filled with varying amounts of water, and a jazzy trumpet, which represents the titular flute. Schikaneder’s German-language story is translated into English and relocated to the townships of Cape Town, with strains of Zulu, Tswana and Xhosa belted out by the vibrantly forceful chorus, who seldom stop moving.

The democratically run ensemble’s barefoot, colorfully costumed cast members are almost seamlessly adept at dashing and even dancing back and forth from the chorus to their instruments while maintaining a consistent level of persuasive dramatic ability — not always a given in opera productions. This emotional heft helps to anchor the plot’s more fantastic elements.

Mhlekazi “Wha Wha” Mosiea has an appealing voice in the role of Tamino — the aimless traveler who has to undergo a series of trials before proving himself worthy of his new love, Pamina — but he’s sometimes overpowered by the beguiling Zolina Ngejane as Pamina. Stout-voiced Zamile Gantana adds comic flair as Tamino’s sometimes-bumbling and unwilling traveling partner, Papageno.

As Sarastro, the king who tests Tamino, the tall, gravel-voiced Ayanda Tikolo is an imposing and fearsome presence. But the most impressive singing comes from Malefane as Pamina’s mother, the wicked Queen of the Night. Adorned in a warrior-princess-style black bustier, a billowing skirt of dark feathers and a crown of twigs, Malefane is visually arresting, and she sends out jolts of pure excitement when her chillingly fierce voice effortlessly scampers up and down the staircases and alights boldly on the parapets of Mozart’s musical mazes.

The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; through Oct. 12. (310) 434-3200, www.thebroadstage.com.


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