Peter Brook can easily be dubbed a theater legend without equal. Though initially a theater director, famous for his daring and simple work, he expanded his repertoire and directed numerous operas at many different houses, including the Met, the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden. This summer, at 86 years old, Brook brought his version of Mozart's The Magic Flute--renamed A Magic Flute lest anyone think this was a traditional or purist take on the opera--to the Lincoln Center Festival. The production premiered at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, so the performers speak in French, sing in German and occasionally throw in an improvised English word.

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord performing The Magic Flute © Pascal Victor/ArtComArt
Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord performing The Magic Flute
© Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

Far from the usual grandiose fantasy of the opera, the stage is bare with only bamboo sticks and a piano in the Gerald W. Lynch Theater--no fancy forest, no masonic temple and no extravagant costumes. The production feels sparse and swift, having been cut down to only ninety minutes without the usual visual fanfare. The focus is entirely on the barefoot ensemble with their quiet and straightforward entrances and exits, negotiating the almost empty space.

Though famous for its Masonic references--both Mozart and the librettist Schikaneder were Masons--this version downplays the mysticism of the Sarastro and his lodge brothers. Instead, the serpent becomes a sort of narrator and supervisor who wields omniscient and patient magic (and the surrounding bamboo) that guides Papageno, that bubbly bird catcher, and Tamino, the uncomplicated prince, on their paths. The Queen of the Night (Malia Bendi-Merad), rather than portrayed as a traditional villainess, shows a genuine sweetness and softness during her first aria (“O zitter nicht”) that contrasted well with her frustration during the famous “Der Hölle Rache.”

Overall, the voices were less polished than in a traditional operatic production, perhaps because the emphasis was on an almost sleepy simplicity in which the characters all lost themselves in the forest. With just a piano accompaniment, some of the singers were still occasionally difficult to hear over the piano, but that softness lent a humility and sense of reality to the fairy-tale that is usually overlooked in favor of expensive sets and extravagant gestures. The final passage of the central lovers Tamino and Pamina through the trial-caverns was particularly poignant with the pair elegantly tracing the path of a large square, breathing together and concentrating on delicate, deliberate steps to suggest the obstacles that surround them. It was a sweet and adult rendering that required imagination, defying conventionally lavish and larger-than-life productions.

The most interesting and vibrant actors were the unruffled William Nadylam as the ubiquitous serpent and the ebullient, charming Thomas Dolie as Papageno. Nadylam and Dolie's interpretations embraced the spare aesthetic without sacrificing complexity and largesse of character. To some extent, Pamina (Jeanne Zaepfell) and Tamino's (Adrian Strooper) performances, the through line of the story, felt aloof but were balanced by Luc Bertin-Hugault’s relaxed and fatherly Sarastro who, like the serpent, helped to gently nudge the lovers in the right direction.

At the end of the day, what makes a production of The Magic Flute truly moving is, unsurprisingly, the music, and, though interesting and dainty, the voices lacked power. No matter how fresh the vision, the story remains an interesting pretext for beautiful music to emerge out of. Regardless, the production inspires serious consideration of the subtle intersection between music and drama as well as sincere appreciation for the strange fairy-tale Mozart and Shikaneder created. Brook explains, "I called it A Magic Flute not The Magic Flute since this production was not created to compete with other stagings by using spectacular effects, video and set changes. I respect them, but here we try to suggest something else [ . . . ] In today's world, it is necessary to pull yourself up by the straps and find beauty where you can." Though it may take some pulling, one can certainly find something beautiful in this Magic Flute.