Peter Brook is bowing out with a whimper, not a bang. “A Magic Flute (After Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart),” his new and possibly last production at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, will appeal only to unconditional fans.
Although Brook, 85, has said that he’ll go on directing right up to his last breath, he’s on his way out. He recently handed over management of his theater to a younger team, Olivier Mantei and Olivier Poubelle, and its public subsidies have been slashed.
When Brook left London, his birthplace, after three decades of a brilliant career to settle in Paris, the theater world was aghast. In 1974, he took over the Bouffes du Nord, the picturesque ruin of an ancient music hall in a grim neighborhood behind the Gare du Nord.
It was a perfect place for a man who had said goodbye to traditional theater and was seeking new ways to stimulate the imagination of the audience without the usual sets and props. Brook had laid the foundation for his new philosophy in a 1968 book “The Empty Space.”
The formula proved to be a sensation. Brook’s productions were cult events, attracting visitors who normally wouldn’t have dreamed of setting foot in what the locals refer to as Paris’s Little India.
To be worthy of the guest performances of Brook’s troupe in New York, the Majestic Theater in Brooklyn, today’s BAM Harvey Theater, was remodeled so that it looked like the dilapidated Paris original.
Brook also had directed operas, yet felt frustrated with the genre’s conventions and vowed never again to get involved. In 1983, he broke his pledge and staged “La Tragedie de Carmen,” a condensed 83-minute version of Bizet’s masterpiece with a reduced orchestra and some tampering with the score.
The result got mixed reviews. While the New York theater critics welcomed the production, music lovers had misgivings. I belong to the second category.
“A Magic Flute,” though a couple of minutes longer, is even more skeletal. The orchestra is reduced to a piano. That the pianist, Alain Planes, the only known quantity among the participants, jumped ship on the eve of the premiere was a bad omen. Franck Krawczyk, the arranger, had to stand in.
You look in vain for the three ladies or the three boys. Sarastro and the Speaker are performed by the same singer, which brings the cast down to seven.
The evil Monostatos is white, not black, and the macho remarks about the unreliability of women (“Women do little and talk much”) are cut: This is a politically correct show.
The only props are bamboo sticks constantly moved around by two African actors. One of the two does a nice job of making the flute mysteriously appear at the beginning and disappear at the end.
The arias are sung in an exotically flavored German. The dialogues are spoken in French.
I saw the first of two alternating casts. None of the young singers is on the verge of a major career. The only one worth citing is Leila Benhamza’s Queen of the Night: Her coloraturas are clear, yet the lyrical passages need work.
The acting isn’t any better. The general impression is that of a school performance at a provincial conservatory.
The audience didn’t seem to mind. Everybody got a big hand. Rating: *.
“Une Flute Enchantee” runs through Dec. 31. Information: http://www.bouffesdunord.com or +33-1-4607-3450.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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