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Howard Kissel

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Peter Brook's "A Magic Flute"

Posted: 07/08/11 05:00 PM ET

Ever since 1977 the two spacecrafts named Voyager have been hurtling into the farthest reaches of outer space. Should they ever land on some planet with intelligent beings, they contain documents about the people who built them, including a phonograph record with music from many cultures. (Let us hope the citizens of that remote planet have not discarded their turntables.)

According to Carl Sagan, the one piece of music the team that assembled this representative sampling unanimously agreed should include was something by Mozart. From his vast output they selected the second Queen of the Night Aria from his opera "The Magic Flute." I agree with Andre Previn that everything Mozart wrote is perfect, and this is certainly a dazzling specimen of his work, but I am not sure it was the wisest choice. (I would have chosen a short choral piece from the same period, the last few months of Mozart's life, "Ave Verum Corpus," which is truly otherworldly.)

It is, of course, too late to change, but I'm sorry the version making its way through the galaxy was not from the incandescent production of the opera conceived and directed by Peter Brook, which has opened this year's Lincoln Center Festival. (There are performances at the Gerald Lynch Theater of John Jay College through July 17.)

As he did with Bizet's "Carmen" nearly 30 years ago, Brook has radically altered Mozart's work, turning it from a full-length two-act opera into one that lasts 90 minutes without intermission. Needless to say, much beautiful music has been cut, but the dramatic focus of the work has been sharpened. And the way the music is sung deepens our understanding of this magical, deeply spiritual score.

"The Magic Flute" (given his radical alterations, Brook is justified in retitling it "A Magic Flute") has always been a difficult work to stage. It has so many levels you could compare it to an archaeological dig. Emanuel Schickaneder -- the man who wrote the libretto and produced it and gave himself a leading role -- started out just wanting to present a fairy tale that would be a box office hit.

He and Mozart were fellow members of a Viennese Masonic Lodge -- their collaboration occurred at a time when Masonry was regarded with suspicion, and they used their work as a vehicle to create a climate of sympathy for their Masonic beliefs. They adhered to a popular formula of the time -- creating a melodrama in which someone is rescued. (A few years later Beethoven followed a similar formula in his sole opera, "Fidelio.") These various layers create numerous inconsistencies, but the individual dramatic scenes are so skillfully musicalized that they all play like gangbusters, regardless of the things that don't really jibe.

Brook has trimmed what is ordinarily a fairly large cast and chorus down to nine actor-singers, which means the characters are not part of a large pageant but true individuals. This is particularly the case with the Queen of the Night. She is clearly the villainess of the piece, but Mozart's music gives her a complexity the plot does not, and Brook highlights it.

Her two great arias are mainly known for their treacherous coloratura but the first of them begins with music of extraordinary tenderness. Malia Bendi-Merad, who sang it the night I saw it, brought out the aggrieved mother in the character rather than just the vengeful diva.

But this is true of all the singers -- the cast is young, their voices are pure, and their style of singing is never showy or declamatory. It always projects the depth of the characters.This is especially true of Adrian Strooper and Jeanne Zaepfel, the Tamino and Pamina, who give their roles youthful ardor and great nobility. Thomas Dolie conveys the humor of Papageno the birdcatcher with high spirits and musical finesse. Luc Bertin-Hugault has great strength as Sarastro -- his "In Diesen Heilgen Halle" was particularly moving.

It is useful but not essential to know the opera well to see how the music has been cut. Pieces have sometimes been unusually juxtaposed -- Sarastro's serene aria, for example, now comes immediately after "Die Holle Rache," that wild expression of rage that has been making its way through the universe these last 34 years. To provide some transition the super sensitive pianist, Franck Krawczyk, one of the adapters of the score, plays some measures from a Mozart piano sonata that fit beautifully. (That it happens to be a piece I worked on in my youth added to the emotional heft of the evening.)

Visually the production could not be simpler. The only scenery consists of what look like thin bamboo poles on square bases used to create many splendid effects. Needless to say, the lighting is artful and haunting. The title character -- the flute -- is handled with good, old-fashioned magic.

Most of the evening I was bathed in tears. I have seen many productions of this, one of my absolute favorite operas, but never one so revelatory or moving.