In this week’s issue of the New Statesman, editor Jason Cowley devotes the “Notes in the margin” column to some reflections on Peter Brook’s “A Magic Flute” at the Barbican. Brook, he wrote, “continues to experiment with form as he seeks to get ever closer to the essence of the dramatic art”. Here, our theatre blogger GIna Allum offers her take on what she thinks will be Brook’s “swansong”.
So the old innovator comes once more to London. At the age of 86, after 70 or so productions and a clutch of films and books, Peter Brook is finally bowing out, and A Magic Flute is his swansong. And since we know the work as The Magic Flute, what, we might ask, is in an indefinite article?
Well, a good deal, as it happens. The title signposts the piece as a personal one; one man’s response to Mozart – or, more properly, one collaborative team’s response to Mozart. This is cut-and-paste baroque, pick’n’mix singspiel, with the original three hours’ worth of music pared to a bare 90 minutes. Arias à la carte are spliced with dialogue in demotic French, and there are swingeing cuts to music, structure, characters and orchestra (it is performed with one piano only).
Austerity opera, maybe. Certainly the numerical underpinning, the triple symbolism of Mozart’s Masonic allegory (three temples, three boys, three flute solos), is shrunk. Brook and his collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, instead concentrate on the doubling that informs the story: the hero Tamino has a coarse counterpart in Papageno, who is also in want of a wife; Papageno himself gets his own clone — the object of his uxorial quest, Papagena, is dressed as his doppelganger.
Then there is the competition for hearts and minds between the binary powers of Sarastro (male, rational, enlightened) and the Queen of the Night (female, vengeful, destructive). The magic flute itself has a bloody duplicate in the Queen’s red dagger. Brook, for all his chops, chose to keep and enshrine the narrative pattern of women as surrendered wives and pale imitations: “A man must guide your hearts, for without him a woman steps out of her sphere.” We are still all lodge brothers together, apparently. This is where the lack of an orchestra, with its plurality of voice and possibilities of equivocation (lyrical woodwind to counterpoint Sarastro’s priestly pronouncements, for example), flattens and thins the opera.
The set design is a simple arrangement of bamboo poles: a phallic, bristling forest of giant flutes, which becomes a porcupine thicket for Tamino’s rescue-quest, and is rearranged architecturally for Sarastro’s temple. When the Queen of the Night knocks the pillars down in her hissy fit, the entire cast finally restores the masculine order by picking up these outsize spillikins for their, as it were, re-erection.
What we gain from this reduced, deboned and hashed opera is a certain intimacy and fluidity: actors have tiny interactions with the piano, or stop the music altogether (to get the straying Papageno out of the audience). A constrained Mozart, against a severe backdrop, still shines with startling clarity. The diminutive Malia Bendi-Merad sings the Queen of the Night’s fiendishly difficult aria, “Der Hölle Rache”, which demands the tessitura of a lark, with pinpoint delicacy. The sound of the cast’s voices, unbuttressed by instruments, is an unexpected pleasure. Their movements, too, have been stripped of excess and honed by Marcello Magni to a debrided, graceful minimum.
Costumes bear the Brook hallmarks of the timeless and placeless — namely, ecru and baggy — though they are primped with vaguely oriental touches; incarnadine flashes denote the Queen’s bloody doings. The lighting is stealthily beautiful. Admittedly sometimes the drive for simplicity can cause the childlike to slip into the childish: when Tamino and the rescued Pamina undergo trial by fire and water it is a slow strut up and down the stage, done with all the gravitas and self-importance of kids dressing up and making-believe.
Brook’s casting is typically described as colour-blind, but perhaps colour-sensitive would be more accurate. The two black actors are the only ones who don’t sing, and don’t have a named role. They are by turns “gracious spirits” who further the action, and stagehands who shift the scenery. That said, William Nadylam is such a strong, attractive presence, that the action appears to revolve around him. He is the one who conjures the magic flute’s appearance and disappearance, and when he stares down the cast at the end of the play, it is as if they are all creatures of his imagination.
The Magic Flute proved to be the composer’s swansong, too, so it seems fitting that Brook has chosen it as his last project. Mozart haché it may be, but the dialogue between the two men is an interesting and at times delightful one. While we may not be getting essential Mozart, we are surely getting essential Brook.