But perhaps “updated” isn’t quite the right word: In the program notes, the show’s director, Mark Dornford-May, relates a myth from the Tsonga tradition about the andlati birds that live high in the mountains and cause terrifying storms and lightning. Only a hero brave enough to seek them out with a magic flute can appease them and avert destruction.
“The story may never have reached Mozart, but the similarities are fascinating nonetheless,” Mr. Dornford-May writes. “Who knows? Maybe one of the greatest pieces of European opera had its roots and inspiration in a South African folk tale.”
Certainly, few productions can match the colorful exuberance and pulsating energy of this “Flute,” or field as versatile a cast as this, in which every member sings, dances and drums. The bare set evokes a township square. The traditional orchestra is replaced by eight marimbas, supplemented by an array of percussion, including djembes, oil barrels, hand clapping and — standing in for Papageno’s glockenspiel — suspended water bottles of graduated pitches. Tamino’s flute is a trumpet, played with jazzy vigor by Mandisi Dyantyis, the ensemble’s co-music director and conductor.
The vocal performances were a testament to South Africa’s deep pool of singing talent. The notes were all there — Pauline Malefane courageously scaled the heights of the Queen of the Night’s arias; Mhlekazi Mosiea was a dignified Tamino; Ayanda Eleki, a proud, patriarchal Sarastro — even if there were times when they audibly strained the limits of the singers’ technique. But the cast offered portrayals with ample personality and charisma, among them Zolina Ngejane’s superfeisty Pamina and Zamile Gantana’s bon-vivant Papageno.
But this African “Flute” is, above all, a story of community, and the music, too, is at its most convincing where it draws on South Africa’s glorious choral tradition. If that means taking liberties with Mozart’s score, fine: Tamino’s taming of Monostatos and his posse of slaves suffers no injury by the infusion of a bit of calypso rhythm. The celebrations that greet Sarastro’s first appearance — complete with ululating women — are a jubilant riot.
The communal aspect also raises the stakes for the lovers’ trials, which are presented as a series of tribal initiation rites, with Tamino’s face painted white, like that of a tribal youngster embarking on a circumcision ritual. In traditional productions, this is often the part of the opera where the tension slackens, but in this post-apartheid setting, the young people’s quest for dignity, wisdom and reconciliation is shown to be of vital importance to everyone.