Excluding the magic
What to do with The Magic Flute? Not totally subvert it, suggests Amal Choucri Catta
The Magic Flute, Mozart; Cairo Opera Company, Cairo Opera Choir and Orchestra; cond. Nader Abbassi; Cairo Opera House, Main Hall, 12-17 January, 8pm
Local colour, magic, enchantment, these we might have expected from a production of The Magic Flute that was widely trailed as a "very Egyptian spectacle". What was offered, though, was a version of Mozart's two act opera set among the ambiguous remnants of a Cyclopean architecture that appeared to have survived Armageddon. There was a lemon-yellow horizon with empty spaces in the middle of nowhere and a huge signpost indicating the way to Giza as well as to Thebes and other places existent and non-existent. Megalithic dolmens, remnants of ancient ruins, and a circular twisting and turning centre-piece, serving as temple, as initiation- centre, as Sarastro's palace, formed the larger part of the sets which were remarkably ugly and totally un-Egyptian. Two huge Horus eyes descended from heaven at one point, as did Pamina's bed, a copy of the one in the Hetep-Heres collection. There were tarbouched porters in tunics and shining boots. The costumes comprised an ambiguous combination of contemporary daywear with an overlay of futuristic effects. There was also a second curtain, presenting a strange map of Egypt with the Giza Pyramids and the Nile as far away from the magic flute as Mars is from Earth.
Following the overture the curtain rose to reveal Tamino, a young prince separated from his followers while travelling. Unarmed and defenceless, he was attacked by a huge serpent, an immense green reptile which had been creeping onto the stage for some time, when along came the Drei Damen, attendants of the Königin der Nachet, to save the prince, credibly interpreted by tenor Georges Wanis in ordinary shirt and trousers and waistcoat. Compared to the costumes of Drei Damen his attire was simple, nondescript, too unobtrusive for Mozart's prince.
The sad story of the sets and costumes begins with the three people responsible for this operatic production, all of whom come from Germany, a country with more snow than sunshine. Susanna Boehm designed the sets and the costumes, Christian RŠth directed the show, while Markus Holdermann was responsible for lighting. And while they are all patently competent their vision excluded anything Egyptian. They gave us a Magic Flute in drab shades and with more snow than sunshine, a perfectly German Magic Flute. The singers, chorus and soloists on stage spoke and sang an impeccable German -- it is a long time since we have heard such excellent diction. And this was something to be proud of -- the pronunciation was perfect, deserving, and getting, special applause. The singing and the acting were likewise excellent: bass- baritones Ashraf Sweilam and Reda El-Wakil, tenors Walid Korayem and Georges Wanis, baritones Raouf Zaidan and Elhamy Amin, mezzo- sopranos Hanan El-Guindi and Hala El- Shaboury, sopranos Dalia Farouk, Nashwa Ibrahim, Sarah Enany, Taheya Shams El-Dine, Mona Rafla turned in marvellous performances, for which we must offer the director thanks. Sadly Rasha Talaat, a newcomer to the scene, gave us the worst Königin der Nacht anyone could have heard, a fault of the voice and not of diction. The role demands a soprano-coloratura, with special emphasis on the "coloratura" and those capable of singing this part flawlessly are extremely rare. Rasha Talaat is not one of them. She still has a long way to go before tackling the required ornamentation of any melody, either extemporised or written. Her voice went off key more than once and she could not reach the high Cs and Ds required by Mozart's score.
This unfortunate matter raises a question. Where is Amira Selim, the only soprano- coloratura worthy of the name. Recently she sang, and wonderfully so, the "Aria of the bells" from Lakme, another coloratura-feat, before leaving for Paris. Everyone thought she would be back for the Flute but she wasn't and is sadly missed.
It must be said, though, that all other voices were excellent. Even Elhamy Amin turned out to be a fascinating, evil Monostatos. Papageno, beautifully interpreted by Raouf Zaidan, was a jolly, rollicking knave, by occupation a bird catcher, a huge eater and drinker. Placing his cage upon the ground he announced his presence with repeated blasts of his Pan pipes and lively song.
The story unravels as Prince Tamino arises from his swoon and seeing the reptile killed addresses Papageno, whom he thinks has saved his life. Convinced that the snake is dead the bird- catcher claims the credit for having slain it. The Drei Damen overhear this falsehood and one of them bumps Papageno on the head with his padlocked cage, reducing his entire vocabulary to Hm-hm-hm. The three then address themselves to the prince, telling him of the Queen of the Night and her daughter Pamina, a lovely and gentle being as virtuous in spirit as her person is charming. The queen-mother, a haughty and ambitious woman, loving darkness more than light wants her daughter to be like her. But Sarastro, high-priest and grand master of the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, has other plans for the girl. The great duty of his life is to encourage virtue, to aid those seeking true wisdom, watch over and guard them during their periods of probation and finally to consecrate them as members of the holy fraternity of which he is head. In order to allow Pamina's virtues to develop Sarastro has taken her from her mother to live in his abode of wisdom and peace, a move that has not unpredictably excited a great deal of anger and grief on the part of the mother who seeks in vain to regain her daughter and punish Sarastro. To further this end, she enlists the help of Tamino, promising him Pamina's hand in marriage if he succeeds in securing her return.
Thus begins Tamino's unexpected and complicated series of tests and trials in preparation for initiation into the "brotherhood". In the end the entire company celebrates the victory of light over darkness and the spectacle closes with a chorus of thanks-giving to Isis and Osiris. Dalia Farouk and Taheya Shams El-Dine, alternating in the part of Pamina, are excellent. The Masonic themes, though, are deemed too heady a brew for local consumption. Mozart's opera has consequently been watered down to a rather childish farce, replete with all kinds of insects, grasshoppers, cockroaches, scarabs and other human-sized beetles taking part in the trials before disappearing into oblivion. Finally, the queen and her ladies, together with the evil Monostatos and his tarboushed followers, disappear forever and the world is relieved of their bad deeds. All glory goes to Sarastro and to those who have passed the last tests of fire and water. And while the last Fortissimo merited applause, it was difficult not to ask just what we had been watching. Mozart and his intentions were gone. All that remained of him was his music, played by the Cairo Opera Orchestra under the baton of Nader Abbassi, the only magic left in this particular Magic Flute.