By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – If all had gone as originally planned, Los Angeles Opera would have trotted out its Gerald Scarfe-designed production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for another go this month. Instead, the company went for a bold stroke, sparked by a YouTube video trailer of a wildly innovative production staged by Komische Oper Berlin in 2012.
LA Opera president and CEO Christopher Koelsch took one look at the video, booked a flight to Berlin, thought the production was perfect for Los Angeles, and pulled a last-minute switcheroo in June (unusually late timing for an opera company), inserting the Berlin production while retaining the originally-booked L.A. cast.
Koelsch was right. This new production, given its U.S. debut Nov. 23 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is appropriate for Los Angeles since it incorporates the methods and figures of the silent-film era, and it will probably be a big hit. But is it appropriate for Mozart’s opera? That will take some sorting out.
First, the details. Working with Australian avant-garde director Barrie Kosky, the London-based team of Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt (who call their theater company 1927, the year the talkies came in) came up with a whimsical barrage of animated creatures, objects, and effects projected onto a blank white wall. There is no lighting; everything is illuminated by the projections. The singers are strapped in harnesses to revolving windows at various heights on the wall, sometimes appearing on the stage floor.
Schikaneder’s interminable dialogue is gone, replaced by ornate silent-movie captions that move the plot along, underscored by repeated excerpts from Mozart’s Fantasias K.475 and K.397 as played on an amped-up fortepiano (imagine Mozart sounding like silent-movie music). 1927 also eliminates the old crone who turns into Papagena (Amanda Woodbury) in Act II.
Some of the leads assume stylized film roles: Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee) seems to be a refugee from a Weimar Republic cabaret; Pamina (Janai Brugger) is Louise Brooks; Papageno (Rodion Pogossov) a sad sack Buster Keaton; Monostatos (Rodell Rosel) a Nosferatu-like goon. The Queen of the Night (Erika Miklósa) is a spider with huge spindly legs controlling and capturing all in its path, even when she is supposed to be a “good guy” in Act I. A symbolic Masonic eye or eyes hover when Sarastro (Evan Boyer) is around.
For all of the references to the 1920s, the hand-sketched computer animation mostly evokes a later influence, and a very British one – Monty Python (with a little bit of Yellow Submarine thrown in) – in its darting, dancing, witty, silly, irreverent streams of consciousness. The opera’s first act was exciting, delightful, different, tightly interlocked with the shape and rhythms of the score, sure to go over big with kids of all ages.
Yet by the time the second act had concluded, the overall picture had become more ambiguous. The Magic Flute operates on so many planes – there is whimsy, silliness, knockabout comedy, and fairy-tale storytelling, but there is also great profundity and philosophy, the clash between the enlightened intellectual and spiritual life and the more basic desires of Everyman as personified by Papageno. Mozart writes on all levels – parodies of florid sopranos, hummable folksongs, heartfelt operatic laments, the lofty rhetoric of Sarastro, and more.
Hi-tech 1927-style hi-jinks do fit the whimsy and the fairy-tale aspects, but they undercut and clash with the more serious stuff, particularly the start of Act II, where Mozart’s solemn march and Sarastro’s magisterial “O Isis und Osiris” are trivialized by the nutty animation and lose their musical power. The other problem is that Mozart’s characters seem like they are at an arms-length distance, little more than part of the animation, often constrained in their movement when pinned to the wall – and as a result, we don’t really empathize with them.
The accent in this production is so much on the visual razzle-dazzle that its undeniable musical values are bound to be overlooked. James Conlon kept the pit orchestra moving at an invigorating clip, having a lot of fun especially with Monostatos’ quicksilver aria in Act II, yet he could also be warm and inviting in Tamino’s and Pamina’s arias of vulnerability. The singers in general responded well – save for Boyer’s somewhat weak Sarastro – projecting clearly into the hall. If you closed your eyes, Mozart was definitely well-served.
Ultimately, this silent-movie cartoon of a production could make a lot of new, young friends for Mozart. One wonders, though, how many other repertory operas can legitimately lend themselves to this kind of production – Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen or Wagner’s Ring, perhaps? – so its application might be limited.
L.A. Opera’s performances run through Dec. 15. Minnesota Opera, the co-producer of this imported fantasy (which also constructed the set), gets it next, in April.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.