Magic Mozart: The Magic Flute at the Cairo Opera House

Ragaa El-Din Ahmed as Tamino and Tahia Shams El-Din as Pamina in Cairo Opera House's version of The Magic Flute (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Ragaa El-Din Ahmed as Tamino and Tahia Shams El-Din as Pamina in Cairo Opera House’s version of The Magic Flute (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Between 10 and 14 January, the Cairo Opera Company, the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui and the Cairo Opera Choir with choir master Aldo Magnato presented Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

Performance of The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote) at the Cairo Opera House incorporated a number of companies: the Cairo Opera Company, the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui, the Cairo Opera Choir with choir master Aldo Magnato, soloists and children from the High Ballet Institute in Cairo. The director is Hisham El-Tally.

The opera was performed in German with all spoken dialogue in Arabic. This procedure allowed the audience to a closer connection with the masterpiece and a way to enjoy the plot. What may draw Egyptian audiences even more are some references to ancient Egypt, with the suggestion that The Magic Flute takes place in Egypt during the reign of Ramesses I, in New Kingdom era, with most of the action takes in the vicinity of the Temple of Isis in Memphis (Egypt’s capital under the Old Kingdom).

Regardless of such historical license, on the esoteric level, Egypt possibly serves as a symbol of illumination and as such becomes an allegory of Enlightenment; and this is where the role of Egypt ends. But the opera has no historical connection to Egypt. “The libretto to The Magic Flute is considered such a jumble of nonsense that it is as well to endeavour to extract some sense from it,” writes one critic who attempted to provide a synopsis.

The plot might seem complicated due to the multitude of elements and numerous characters, but the symbolic power of three – three slaves, three ladies, three genies – and the fairy-tale components are easily deciphered on stage. A major simplification of the plot would point to Prince Tamino who is on a quest to rescue Pamina from the empire of Sarastro. The surprise comes when the audience discovers that the evil is not Sarastro but the Queen of the Night, Pamina’s mother.

No doubt The Magic Flute is Mozart’s masterpiece and a great theatrical experience. Being among the most frequently performed operas worldwide, it boasts great comedy, undertones of wisdom, a love story and much more besides. Fascinating arias, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, along with scenes including choir: the rich variety of musical numbers transport the viewer to a world of captivating delights. There is something for everyone in The Magic Flute. Musically speaking, Mozart incorporated a number of musical styles popular at that time into this opera, attaching each style to specific characters.

Among the particularly beautiful and noted arias is “Der Holle Rache”, sung by the Queen of the Night in the opera’s second act. She is a character typical of opera seria which incorporates the seriousness of gods and ancient heroes. This wonderful but extremely challenging number demonstrates the singer’s coloratura that must hit the top F6 note – one of the highest notes in the soprano’s vocal range – more than once.

Rasha Talaat who sang role of the Queen of the Night keeps returning with “Der Holle Rache”, not only in The Magic Flute but also in gala concerts. The role of Queen of the Night was her debut with the Cairo Opera back in January 2003. The soprano should be applauded for her courage and, when faced with tough coloratura passages, she leaves little to be desired.

It is not an easy aria and Mozart’s demands on vocal pyrotechnics makes it a nightmare to many singers. Many sopranos manage to make it through extensive training but they keep the audience on the edge of their seats praying that the Queen will manage it. Few can deliver the famous high Fs with the required flawless ease, adding edge to the Queen’s strong and evil character – indeed a very difficult combination. Rasha Talaat has the capacity of a great singer; a spoonful of dramatic accents with even clearer coloratura would have been perfection itself.

With their thematically dramatic and musically complicated lines, the Queen of the Night and Priest Sarastro — sung by Abdel Wahab El Sayed who, despite an interesting performance, seemed to struggle with the lower register all through the evening — contrast with two other characters: Pamina and Tamino, the prince and princess. Both characters are typical of opera buffa.

Amusing yet very elegant, the music for major characters in opera buffa carries simpler lines. On two nights of The Magic Flute the role of Tamino was sung by Ragaa El-Din Ahmed. It is always a pleasure to listen to his pliable tenor that this time gave courtly embroidery to Tamino, especially in his opening aria “Sonst bin ich verloren!” (Otherwise I am lost!). There is obvious work behind each of Ragaa El-Din Ahmed’s performances. This shows loyalty to the craft, a characteristic of the ambitious singers of the Cairo Opera Company. Tahia Shams El-Din, in the role of Pamina, gave a lot of warmth to the character. Her smooth and rich soprano rendered the second act’s aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” (Oh, it disappeared) as memorable as it can be.

And onto Papageno and Papagena: two characters who musically represent German Singspiels. Papageno, the everyman, a funny character and the glue in the whole story, sings catchy melodies, something the audience will walk away humming. This stresses the characteristic of popular songs, yet another style Mozart incorporated into The Magic Flute. The orchestra introduces the entire tune of each of his arias before Papageno sings it, one more element pointing to his close relations with the popular culture.

“Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja”(Yes, I am a bird-catcher) is among the most lovely tunes in this opera, fitting the lightheartedness of Papageno. From the acting point of view we cannot think of a better Papageno than the one performed by baritone Elhamy Amin. Infusing the character with great dynamism, once again Amin proves he possesses not only vocal talents but also remarkable acting abilities. His truthfulness in any role is captivating yet the spontaneity he adopted in Papageno’s role had him off the script several times in the spoken parts.

Dialogue in Arabic are already amusing for the audience, but additional comments thrown in by the actor blemish the character. Let us forgive Amin, however, for his acting skill paid off on many occasions, including the notable duet “Papageno, Papagena” which he sung with Ingy Mohsen (Papagena), a number that had exceptional mise-en-scene from director Hisham El-Tally.

Opera seria, opera buffa, Singspiels: Mozart doesn’t stop there. Looking into the past, Mozart borrows a tune from Bach’s chorale cantata and transcribes it onto the string section in Act Two’s final scene, when Tamino receives instructions before going through trials. Here the multiple voices of the orchestra build a glorious atmosphere. This complex music, well performed by the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui, added weight to the evening.

It is worth underlining important efforts by the opera’s director Hisham El-Tally. It is hardly common practice on the stage of the Cairo Opera House for an opera to have interesting theatrical elements. El-Tally infused The Magic Flute with a multitude of well designed scenes. Moments of boredom could be blamed more on some of the characters who are better singers than actors. With directors such as El-Tally, it is very possible that the operas performed on the stages of the Cairo Opera House will finally have enough theatre to make them unforgettable to all audiences.

What can support opera production are creative solutions from the scenography team. Mohamed El Gharabawy, responsible for the set design and costumes, chose to present in the impalpable symbolism of this opera in a very direct way. This is how we find an ancient Egyptian temple, an obelisk or a pyramid on stage, while many major characters are depicted as ancient Egyptians. Of course this is one way to present The Magic Flute, but more indirect scenography would have brought to the surface the fairy-tale enchantment that characterises Mozart. It would also have spared us a blatantly clichéd setting.

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