Chicago / Tour Theater Review: THE MAGIC FLUTE (Isango Ensemble at Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Barnaby Hughes on September 27, 2014

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Sarastro (Simphiwe Mayeki) and the ensemble of Isango Ensemble’s THE MAGIC FLUTE. Photo by Keith Pattison.South Africa’s Isango Ensemble is undoubtedly full of talented actors, singers, and musicians, but doesn’t quite have the specialized skills required to pull of Mozart’s masterful The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo). While the production doesn’t aim for a straightforward rendering of the original, it does retain much of the story and music, albeit with a tribal flavor. Gone are the strings, horns, and flutes of Mozart’s classical instrumentation. Instead, co-musical directors Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantis have opted for an orchestra of marimbas of varying sizes and tonal registers, a range of African drums, and the curious rendering of the titular flute’s music by a silver trumpet. Sung primarily in English, there are no supertitles to read, but one often wishes that there were.

Tamino (Mhlekazi Andy Mosiea) in Isango Ensemble’s THE MAGIC FLUTE. Photo by Keith Pattison.A South African production of The Magic Flute might seem like an odd cultural pairing, but there are some congruencies. As adapter, director, and writer, Isango Ensemble co-founder Mark Dornford-May notes, there is a Tsonga tradition relating to birds, a storm, and an enchanted flute that shares much with Emanuel Schikaneder’s German libretto. There is also a similarity in the mixed composition of the Isango Ensemble—comprising artists of varied skill—and Schikaneder’s theatrical troupe, for whom Mozart composed his score. That is why he was able to write extraordinarily difficult roles for the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, yet rather simpler parts for Papageno and Papagena.

Fortunately, Isango has an impressively talented bass in Ayanda Eleki, who amply fills the role of Sarastro. Monumental in height and profound in depth of voice, Eleki obviously has the range, technique, diction, and presence to command. Pauline Malefane’s Queen of the Night is no match for him. Her rendition of the famous aria “Der hölle rache” is bland and lackluster. Malefane seems so focused on getting the The Queen of the Night (Pauline Malefane) in Isango Ensemble’s THE MAGIC FLUTE. Photo by Keith Pattison.notes right—admittedly a difficult enough task—that she fails to imbue her voice with that vengeance of hell of which she sings. Mhlekazi (Wha Wha) Mosiea as Tamino is similarly out of his depth, but he has enough youthful sincerity that the audience wants to root for him anyway. Zamile Gantana’s Papageno provides a welcome comic foil to Mosiea’s earnest Tamino.

The cast really comes alive, however, on those occasions when they dance and make South African-style music. Most commonly used as incidental music when transitioning scenes, call-and-response songs and full-throated gospel harmonies grow in frequency throughout the second half. This reviewer was hoping to hear much more of it than he did. The production’s overall tone is far too exuberant and playful for the passions and trials of its characters. In other words, there simply isn’t enough drama to make this Magic Flute compelling.

photos by Keith Pattison

The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo)
Isango Ensemble
a Chicago Shakespeare Theater World’s Stage presentation
Skyline Stage on Navy Pier
scheduled to end on September 28, 2014
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit

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