The Magic Flute | Isango EnsemblePhotos – Belinda Strodder

Badoom badoom badoom – this is your heart under ordinary circumstances, say as you take your seat in the State Theatre when you go to see Isango Ensemble‘s rendition of The Magic Flute.

Badompa dompa dompa – that’s your heart picking up as the music starts. Musicians dance as they beat out Mozart’s music on marimbas, voices rise like bird calls and roll low like thunder, dancers swirl and stamp.

Badoom ba doom ba...

And that’s your heart seeming to stop for a moment when Pauline Malefane, as Queen of the Night, sings.

Isango Ensemble is by all accounts a remarkable organisation. Drawing its talent from artists living in the poor townships around Cape Town, the company has used both theatre and film to render classics of western art into stories that resonate with South African culture. The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo) was one of the first shows the ensemble put on when it premiered in 2006 and international tours of the production have earned considerable notice.

Isango has taken the 220-year old opera and injected some serious life into it. It’s Mozart but there’s not a string section in sight, with the score rendered almost entirely through percussion and voice. It follows the story of Tamino (Mhlekazi Mosiea), a traveller gifted with an enchanted flute and sent on a quest to oppose an “evil” sage, only to discover that he is perhaps working for the wrong side. Director Mark Dornford-May has drawn on similarities between Mozart’s fairytale and elements of African myth and the storyline of spirits, enchantment and ritual trials fits naturally into the context of an African folktale.

Moments that are classic Mozart blend into those that are pure Africa, in a performance that overflows with joy and vigor. It bounds from scene to scene without a slow moment, unless it is one that is carefully measured for impact. The singing is in English and the dialogue in a combination of English and Xhosa. Dornford-May has done a good job with the adaptation. Even with the changing language and operatic flourishes the key plot points are always clear and there are touches of tongue-in-cheek humour, without these being overdone or detracting from the essential drama.

The costumes are a riot: a combination of modern and tribal African, with touches of the 60s from some very funky spirit guides. From Zamile Gantana’s engaging turn as comic relief sidekick Papageno to Simphive Mayeki’s imposing performance as the sage Sarastro to Malefane’s show-stopping arias, the performances are excellent. The whole company gives its all and the constant sense of crowd energy is a powerful factor in the show’s success.

In the townships of South Africa, Isango has expanded people’s horizons by demonstrating what is possible through art. With this show, it is sharing a similar revelation with the world.

Impempe Yomlingo
THE MAGIC FLUTE (Impempe Yomlingo)

Adapted & Directed by Mark Dornford-May

Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre | St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Dates: 11 – 16 Oct, 2011
Tickets: $149.90 – $25.00
Bookings: the Arts Centre 1300 182 183 | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

Part of the 2011 Melbourne Festival

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