Valiant Effort, Auspicious Beginning...
By Uche Nwamara
O, so eine Flöte ist mehr
Als Gold und Kronen wert
Denn durch sie wird Menschenglück
Und Zufriedenheit vermehrt
A flute like this is more precious
than gold and crowns
For through it will men’s happiness
and satisfaction increase
“The Magic Flute”, Mozart’s final opera, is widely considered to be his masterpiece: a towering work that incomparably marries Mozart’s genius for melodies with a transcendental spirituality. The uniqueness of the work not only lies in its unprecedented musicology and the high level of musicianship it demands, but also in its effect as a medium for a powerful message: perhaps not until the operas of Wagner was a worldview so powerfully and beautifully encapsulated in a work of music. However, this worldview was a specific, and if you like, a localised one. Mozart’s belief in the universal brotherhood of man, his espousal of a humanitarian morality unmoored by creed, which was rooted in his freemasonry, was very much a product of his circumstances. “The Magic Flute” is a work for all time and all places, but its root is very European, and, (as shown by the fact that it is one of a handful of Mozart operas whose libretto is in German), very Germanic.
Perhaps therein lay the difficulty in the performance of highlights from the Magic Flute at the Shell Hall, MUSON Centre on Sunday, October 28. A very competent cast of performers, supported by an enthusiastic MUSON Symphony Orchestra, more than adequately coped with the notes, but one came away with the feeling that they had failed to plumb the depths of this monumental work, to understand its background or to apply the level of musicianship required to convey its message. In addition, attempts were made to make the opera accessible to the audience by having a “narrator” and by having the performers wear African garb. These attempts, to this member of the audience at least, had a trivialising effect - this opera either does not lend itself to Africanisation, or would require more nuance than what was on offer on the night to be successful in this..
For all that, it proved an entertaining night at the Shell Hall, and some of the performances shone. Guchi Egbunine was solid as Tamino, his range assured and his intonation reliable. After an uncertain start - his rendition of “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”, the opera’s first aria, where Tamino falls in love after seeing Pamina’s portrait for the first time, exposed problems in coordination with the orchestra – Egbunine was a consistent and assured presence throughout the opera. Obinna Ifediora was a majestic Sarastro, and his two main arias, “O Isis und Osiris” and “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” were impressively done, having the right combination of pathos and grandiosity. John Eclou’s Monostatos had an appealing creepiness, and he managed to convey the tortured outsiderness of the black slavemaster. John Paul Ochei brought a roguish charm to elegant singing as Papageno, and his duet with Suzie-Mae Ogunseitan as Papagena in the second act provided one of the most delightful moments in the opera.
The female singers were more of a mixed bag. Prisca Enyi was inconsistent as Pamina, especially in the higher registers. Naomi Samuel, Chika Ogbuji and Fatima Anyekema were impressive as the handmaidens of the Queen of the Night, and combined well. Ranti Ihimoyan, gamely taking on what is by common consent one of the most difficult roles in all opera, the Queen of Night, produced some lovely singing, but lacked security in the higher registers. However, her rendition of the most famous aria in opera, “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (the “Queen of the Night Aria”), had fire and passion, and she hit the impossibly high “F” with aplomb. Also worthy of mention are Tobi Aregbesola,Olaide Oyewunmi and Maryann Agetu, who sang the roles of the three boys with impeccable intonation and impressive acting.
The chorus provided steady and consistent support throughout the opera, though the “Isis and Osiris” tutti in the second act was tentative after a false start. The MUSON Orchestra also produced a solid performance, although its intonation in places lacked the mountain-air purity required for Mozart. Thomas Kannitz, the conductor, provided strong and effective direction, but it was difficult to account for one or two of his interpretative choices, such as the unaccountably fast tempo in the Tamino-Pamina-Sarastro trio “Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehn”. One also wondered why Papageno and Papagena’s dialogue in Act 2 was in English rather than German like the rest of the opera.
All in all, it was a valiant, impressive effort which, judging from the audience’s enthusiastic reaction and participation, was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Classical concertgoers in Nigeria have long felt the absence of any serious operatic offerings, and so this was a refreshing and long-awaited treat. Some, including this reviewer, might have hoped that a less musically-difficult and culturally sophisticated opera than “The Magic Flute” would have been first attempted. However, it is to be hoped, and the auguries are good, that this performance will spark a naissance in Nigeria of the performance and appreciation of this most intimate and rewarding of musical genres.