The Magic Flute is the most elusive and mysterious of Mozart’s operas, but at the Young Vic it’s clear from the opening notes of the overture that the exciting Anglo-South African Isango/Portobello company has made the work triumphantly its own. The famous fortissimo chords that open the opera don’t come from a conventional orchestra but from a band of marimbas, spiritedly led by dreadlocked conductor Mandisi Dyantyis. As the familiar music continues in its unfamiliar guise, the musicians’ joy in their playing is infectious. Soon everyone in the Young Vic, on and off stage, is grinning.
The elation is justified. The Isango/Portobello company, a part-professional, part-amateur troupe of talented musical actors drawn from Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township under the direction of Mark Dornford-May, has re-imagined Mozart’s Masonic fairy tale from an African perspective while remaining true to its spirit.
So the initiation undergone by the young prince Tamino (Mhlekazi Any Mosiea) becomes the rites of passage ritual a Xhosa boy goes through, while Simphiwe Mayeki’s priestly leader Sarastro, in his magnificent African robes, comes across as a wise and dignified Mandela-like figure. As Sarastro’s dark counterpart, Pauline Malefane makes a magnificent, imposing Queen of the Night and thrillingly pulls off the coloratura fireworks of her show-stopping numbers.
Zamile Gantana’ genial bird-catcher Papageno, the opera’s earthy everyman, gives a sense of contemporary township life with his comic bluster, and it’s a clever touch to provide the sound of his magic tinkling bells by means of half-filled bottles of water tapped by members of the chorus. And the magic flute itself? Fittingly, that comes from Dyantyis’ soaring trumpet.