By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO – When the four members of the SOLI Chamber Ensemble considered how they might participate in a local festival focusing on Mozart, they found themselves in a quandary: SOLI’s focus was on music of the past few decades, much of it commissioned by the troupe, and Mozart did not exactly fit the bill.
They found the solution online in the form of a 52-minute interactive “motion graphic novel,” The Land of the Magic Flute. (It is viewable on mobile devices or Flash-enabled browsers.) Writer Benjamin Schreuder loosely adapted and compressed Schikaneder’s libretto and added a framing device that conceives Tamino as a contemporary novelist (“Chris Taminer”) suffering from a psychological breakdown. The project was drawn and directed by Fons Schiedon, and new electronic music by Philippe Lambert was interspersed with recordings of arias from the Mozart opera. Schiedon’s drawings were inspired by the set design for the Bregenz Festival’s mammoth 2013 production of The Magic Flute on Lake Constance; the aria recordings were taken from that production. Later, Schiedon and Lambert created a live-performance version in which they would mix the images and music on the fly. This version lacked both text balloons and the arias, eliminated the modern scenes with Chris Taminer, and was more allusive and less narrative than the graphic novel.
On Jan. 24 in Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall, Schiedon and Lambert joined SOLI and six young singers assembled by Opera San Antonio to present yet a third version of the project in its U.S. premiere. The live-performance form of the animation was interspersed with seven arias sung live. The orchestral score for the arias was reduced by composer David Fick to a new arrangement for SOLI’s ensemble of violin (Ertan Torgul), clarinet (Stephanie Key), cello (David Mollenauer), and piano (Carolyn True).
The result was stronger visually than musically. Schiedon’s drawings, as animated by the Birdo Studio of Brazil, lean to the nightmarish and are several shades darker in feeling than the opera would suggest, but they are extraordinarily beautiful and consistently mesmerizing. The version seen here, however, is incomprehensible without prior knowledge of the opera or a reading of the printed synopsis, although it might make an excellent accompaniment to an acid trip. The main characters do appear in the animation, but their relationships and the story line are only vaguely suggested.
Lambert’s electronic music for the online graphic novel integrated and deconstructed occasional fragments from Mozart’s score. The music for the live performance version bears no audible references to Mozart, leaving only an atmospheric backdrop of drones, pulses, and bursts. In itself, the sound design is appropriate to the animation, if too generically New Agey, but it is entirely divorced from the sound world of the live arias. As the animation, sans clear narrative structure, also provided little context for the arias, the result was like shuffling the cards from two unrelated decks.
The singers were a promising lot, though all showed a need for further seasoning. Soprano Rainelle Krause impressed with her sure aim in the stratospheric reaches of both Queen of the Night arias. Rob Saldaña’s buttery baritone, accurate pitch, and sensitivity to the text made for a pleasurable account of Papageno’s “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja.” Tenor Eric Schmidt sounded sturdy and steely in Tamino’s “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön.” Bass-baritone Abraham Hardy wanted heft in Sarastro’s “O Isis und Osiris,” but the instrument was attractive. Timothy Birt’s light, agile tenor made a fine appearance in Monostatos’ “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden.” Soprano Diane Green-Stanley was affecting in Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s,”
The arrangement for reduced forces kept the Mozartean spirit intact and maybe even enhanced by the resulting transparency of texture. The performance by SOLI was elegant and lively.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.