A Holy and Immediate 'Flute' from Peter Brook

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In his groundbreaking 1968 work, The Empty Space, Peter Brook classifies theater into four camps: deadly, holy, rough and immediate. “Deadly” represents a form of theater weighted down by tradition, preserved and unchanged. “Holy” represents, in Brook’s own words,  “the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear.” Holy is designed to appeal to the invisible that audiences seek when they go to the theater, appealing to both where we are in the moment and where the art originally was when it was created.

Now in his 80s, Brook has built a legendary career out of transferring theater from the dead to the holy, rough and/or immediate. His 1983 La Tragedie de Carmen removed what the director described as the proverbial dust from Bizet’s opera and Merimée’s book (the stage itself was cloaked in literal dust), paring the cast down to the four main characters of Carmen, Don José, Micaëla and Escamillo and whittling the score and libretto down from 140 to 80 minutes. “Peter Brook’s creation is unquestionably a tour de force,” wrote the New York Times upon the work’s premiere. “It is likely, however, to give hives to any Bizet lover who goes to the theater thinking Mr. Brook’s intent was to mount a rethought, sharply cut Carmen."

Similar alchemy is currently at work at Lincoln Center where, as part of its annual summer festival, Brook has returned with his take on Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Like La Tragedie de Carmen, Brook has approached Mozart’s score and Schickaneder’s libretto with a surgical hand, nipping and tucking the sprawling and often problematic work into a lean 100 minutes. While Brook eschews the term “reduction” when talking about this work, it is a siphoned down version of the familiar starting point, doing away with many of the challenges of libretto and staging. Conversely, however, it may be one of the most challenging Flutes for audiences. And isn’t that far more interesting than watching a giant serpent navigate the stage?

There are familiarities, but they are coupled quickly with shifts and switches. The opening, majestic notes of the overture are heard (entirely on the piano, which serves as the only instrument apart from voices on stage), but the familiar effervescent theme that follows is cut. In doing so, Brook dares us to abandon our notions of the Flute we’ve seen countless times over, refusing to play opera as rote tradition but instead adapting it to the elements on hand, much in the way that music was handled in Mozart’s time. (No clarinet? No problem.) The title A Magic Flute serves as a caveat: Mozart is there, for sure, but this is not meant to be taken as the definitive staging of his final opera. Rather, it’s Brook’s pathway to the heart of the composer.

As an audience member, I found myself struggling to let go of my expectations—the ingrained notion of what was going to happen next knowing the score—though once able to do so the story unfolds with a poetic judiciousness. Tamino’s first aria, upon seeing Pamina’s portrait for the first time, is breathless and spontaneous. Though tenor Adrian Stooper (a dead ringer for one of Brook’s original Don Josés) seemed uncertain and tentative at first—particularly opposite the assured and dapper Papgeno of Thomas Dolié—he warmed up over the course of the evening, showing us a prince who goes from rash naïveté to an enlightened future king.

After a manipulation of the malleable set of bamboo poles we quickly shift from one scene to the next, aided by two actors (William Nadylam and Abdou Ouloguem) who serve as guides for both the characters and the audience in this theatrical journey. With so little decorating the set and actors and score, Brook’s characters are unencumbered and develop organically in both word and song. Pamina and Papageno’s duet is mesmerizingly pure, Sarastro’s “O Isis und Osiris” sublime, the Queen of the Night’s two Olympian arias full of scarily precise coloratura.

Luc Bertin-Hugault’s coppery baritone and benevolent, quiet-giant performance of Sarastro was an especially calming and warming presence onstage, playing against an initially hot-headed Tamino, a scared Pamina and a lascivious Monostatos. Dolié’s Papageno, paired particularly with Dima Bawab as Papagena, was effervescent and a surefire crowd-pleaser, often drawing a laugh with just a turn of his head and a glimpse in his eye.

The finale, following the Queen of the Night’s defeat, scans as slightly ambiguous against the rest of the piece’s framework. While courage has triumphed and virtue risen, we don’t witness a literal downfall of the Queen or Monostatos (though a series of bamboo poles are knocked down, which the entire ensemble reassembles as the piano plays out the melody of the final chorus). Is she absolved of her evil ways and inducted into Sarastro’s fold? Is she, in fact, destroyed? Does it even matter? Brook’s means justify the end, and while this Flute errs more towards the naturalistic than the fantastical, it’s no less magical.

A Magic Flute plays with alternating casts through July 17. Have you seen—or plan to see—it? Leave your own thoughts on the production below throughout the run.