Cambodia’s first opera, Die Zauberflöte
Last night I had the pleasure of attending Cambodia’s first opera, Die Zauberflöte. A multinational cast performed an edited version set in Cambodia. Although the music and acting were sublime and the adaptation for a Cambodian context worked, the edited version left out key information that made the story difficult to follow.
The Chaktomuk Conference Center, located on the riverfront next to the Himawari Hotel, was designed as a theater by renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. The fan-shaped design resembles a palm leaf and gives the venue 270 degree views of the crossing of four rivers. After a fire destroyed the National Theater in 2000, the government refurbished the Chaktomuk Conference Center to provide a international-standard venue for conferences. The auditorium seats just under 600 in stadium style padded seating and features a large stage where the Ministry of Culture hosts performances.
Die Zauberflöte, written by Mozart, is an opera in two acts that depicts a mythical story of a prince (Tamino) sent to save a princess (Pamina) and his comical sidekick (Papageno), a birdcatcher who is looking for a wife. Along the way, Tamino and Papageno decide to join a priesthood. Tamino successfully completes the trials, frees Pamina and falls in love with her. Papageno fails the trials but meets and falls in love with Papagena.
Mozart originally set the opera in Egypt and referenced Masonic themes, but the mythical nature of the story easily lends itself to adaptation. The production last night was set in Cambodia and referenced Hindu themes. The performance featured traditional Cambodian Apsara dance as well as dances by Hanuman and other Hindu mythical creatures. The costumes and dances for woodland creatures were very creative and enhanced the performance.
Additionally, a Cambodian orchestra accompanied the Saigon orchestra in the pit. Most of the time, the two orchestras played separately but there was one aria where the two played together.
The multinational cast hailed from Vietnam with the exception of the Queen of Night, an 18-year old Thai soprano, and the Cambodian narrator. They performed in the original German with the exception of the narrator who spoke in Khmer. The singing and acting were excellent although the venue’s acoustics made it a little difficult to hear some of the arias.
As I said earlier, this was a highly edited version of Die Zauberflöte. Most of the middle scenes were cut (about half of the opera). The narrator provided some of the missing storyline. He was comical and played his part well but the narration didn’t really fill in all the blanks – like how Papageno met Papagena. So, it was a bit of a shock when Papageno wants to hang himself over the loss of a love the audience didn’t know existed. In fact, it was a bit unclear who Papagena was and where she came from when she appeared after intermission. This discontinuity made the second act a little more like a musical review than an opera which is really too bad because the acting was excellent.
In typical Cambodian fashion, the air conditioners failed before the start of the performance. Although they brought in some fans, it was stiflingly hot. I can’t imagine how the cast and pit were able to perform so well under such adverse conditions.
Sadly, Cambodia’s first opera was a one-night only performance. The plan is to repeat this at one of the Angkorian temples in Siem Reap some time later this year. I guess the temperature will be the same so they know they can survive the heat.