‘The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo’ by the Isango Ensemble at Shakespeare Theatre Company

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The South African Isango Ensemble makes a joyful noise with soaring, full of life signature flair performing catchy rhythms, and singing beautiful melodies fusing classical arias and ethnic ululations in The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo (September 12-21), as they open the gates of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Presentation Series 2014 – 2015 Season.’

Mhlekazi (Wha Wha)  Mosiea (Tamino) in 'The Magic Flute - Impempe Yomlingo.' Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Mhlekazi (Wha Wha) Mosiea (Tamino) in ‘The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo.’ Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a man of the theatre and his dramatic gifts have long been celebrated.

Performed by a company of 24 singers and musicians the Isango Ensemble’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute links high art to the humble roots of its energetic, multitalented performers as their larger-than-life qualities capture our imaginations.

The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo is a scintillating fairy tale, comedy, and drama entwined with African myth to one of the best-loved operas in history. By reimagining the classic tale and finding a new context for Mozart’s The Magic Flute within a South African setting, the Isango Ensemble’s heritage is reflected through vibrant storytelling utilizing music and dance, and interjecting penetrating moments of humor creating a performance with a strong South African spirit and vitality.

Accessible to children as well as adults, this Magic Flute is probably unlike a version you’ve ever seen, but as soon as the music starts there is a knowing sense of familiarity. Engaging with rapturous lyricism and celebration, the heart-warming adventure of this production remains faithful to Mozart’s score and the redemptive story of love and reconciliation. Even though it’s different, we recognize these people and we feel their expressed emotions; then there is a relaxing sense that settles in as the audience is entertained and pleasingly satisfied as we take it all in.

This fresh and fearless The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo is infectious, dazzling with Music Director’s Mandisi Dyantyis and Pauline Malefane’s transposed Mozart score. Filled with the emotionally rich musical voice of South Africa, and performed in a melange of languages – including English – the classic arias are enlivened with the two dozen vibrant voices, and exhilarating orchestrations of merriment resonating from eight wooden bar marimbas being played and the powerful percussion of African drum and steel barrels. Additional original music is created by Dyantysis who also performs as the expressive, ebullient Conductor. As a highly-accomplished jazz trumpeter, Mandisi Dyantyis strikes clear, crisp attacks of the high register trumpet that translates as the enchanting sound we hear coming from the Magic Flute. Surprises abound. There’s a moment when he blows a mellow warm sound from what appears to be a lyre-shaped kudu horn (made from the horn of the kudu antelope.) Awesome!

The musical language and allegorical depiction of this exuberant and hugely uplifting production are perfectly at ease with one another and the narrative of faith, conquering evil, and finding true love shines.

British-born, South African-based Artistic Director and Co-Founder Mark Dornford-May directs the two acts of The Magic Flute, Mozart’s final masterpiece opera (completed in September of 1791, slightly more than two months before Mozart’s death at the age of 35) and effortlessly paints the tones for the emotions and the situations of the characters in ways that make them come to life.

Dornford-May and Co-Founder Pauline Malefane (who also plays the Queen of the Night) formed what is now the core of Isango Ensemble in Cape Town in 2000. From the beginning the company has drawn its performers from the previously disadvantaged townships surrounding the city. Mark Dornford-May and his team also won a Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2005 for their filmed version of Bizet’s opera Carmen, called U-Carmen eKhayelitsh.

Specific details and the highlights of this The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo production are best to be discovered as an audience member – that’s half the fun. So I am purposely curtailing more descriptive information details.

The Magic FluteImpempe Yomlingo begins when young traveler, Tamino (Mhlekazi (Wha Wha) Mosiea) is being pursued by a beast and he passes out from the terror. Papageno (Zamile Gantana), a bird catcher, discovers him, and once he has regained consciousness he lies to Tamino telling him that he has killed the beast.  The truth is soon revealed and Tamino is shown a picture of the Queen of the Night’s (Pauline Malafane) beautiful daughter, Pamina (Zolina Ngejane) who has been kidnapped supposedly by an evil man, Sarastro (Ayanda Eleki). Tamino immediately falls in love with the picture and promises to rescue Pamina and return her to the Queen with the help of Papageno. Three warriors give Tamino a Magic Flute and Papageno magic bells which have the power to change evil into good.

As the opera progresses, Pamina falls in love with Tamino after being shown his picture. The audience discovers Tamino has been deceived and is “shown the light” of truth through the aid of Sarastro’s men. Sarastro is not evil and we discover that the Queen of the Night is the true villain bent on dominating the earth and killing Sarastro.

A benevolent man who lives by a doctrine of forgiveness and reconciliation, Sarastro intends to foil the Queen’s plans as Tamino undergoes a series of trials as an initiation into the Brotherhood and to be joined with his true love Pamina.

Scene-stealing Pauline Malefane shines bright, especially in the Act 2, with her haunting high notes and dramatic Coloratura Soprano singing in a resplendent interpretation as the evil Queen of the Night. The velvety smooth low range of Ayanda Eleki’s Bass-Baritone vocal tone when he delivers lyrics about “walking without fear” is a glorious calming presence that lulled me into wanting his singing never to end. These two performers defining electricity and eloquence are crowning moments in the exemplary execution of this world-class production.

Isango Ensemble’s Impempe Yomlingo production has the unique ability of capturing the bold, colorful feel and wide meaning of different worlds and impressionistic perceptions. The organic feel and musical fluidity, upbeat pacing, and intense sense of dramatic timing magnify the genius of this Everyman’s tale.

Paulilne Malefane (Queen of the Night) in 'The Magic Flute - Impempe Yomlingo.' Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Paulilne Malefane (Queen of the Night) in ‘The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo.’ Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

The moveable feast of Leigh Bishop’s costume design parade is an imaginative delight with a continuous surprise of impressive costumes and quick changes. The visual fun is particularly eye-catching with the three female Spirits’ flowy, pink lingerie -like costumes with angel wings and the three disco dancing warriors in bellbottoms and hair-raising Afros.

The winner of a 2008 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival, seen at the Young Vic in London, The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo broke box office records, and won a Globes de Cristal for Best Opera, seen at Théâtre du Châtelet, in Parisfollowing a sold-out season.

The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo combines the utmost simplicity and directness with the greatest seriousness of purpose. The opera’s message of tolerance, enlightenment, human brotherhood, and the celebration of joy is surely the substance that Mozart wanted to communicate, and this truly charming and exquisite production from South Africa is one he’d surely be proud.

The rhythmic, infectious wit and visible joy of this euphoric one-of-a-kind experience of The Magic Flute is uncomparable. Many thanks to Shakespeare Theatre Company and Michael Kahn for bringing the originality and talents of the Isango Ensemble to Washington, D.C.

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with a 20 minute intermission.

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The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo plays through September 21, 2014, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Landsburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online, or call the box office at (202) 547-1122.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - sydneychanele@gmail.com [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]