The Los Angeles Opera presented the American premiere of an extraordinary production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”.
Imported from Berlin’s Komische Oper, the opera is performed live encased in an animated silent film as one of the cleverest hybrids of the visual and performing arts ever to be assayed.
[Below: Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee, center) is pursued by a dragon; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Since the Los Angeles audience witnessed a live operatic performance of an opera sung by opera singers, it is appropriate that an opera reviewer comment on what was accomplished.
However, the performance is one that can and will be experienced by a much wider audience than has traditionally attended opera, and just appropriately can be considered as a new way of presenting animated movies or a new kind of musical theater.
[Below: the Two Armored Men (Valentin Anikin and Vladimir Dmitruk, both in top hats in small inset, bottom center) on either side of Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee) takes him in an elevator shaft to the depths of hell; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
From Scarfe to Koskie
Originally, L. A. Opera had planned a revival of its venerable production of Mozart’s final opera [The Magic Scarfe: “Zauberfloete” in San Francisco – October 13, 2007], created by Gerry Scarfe, himself a famous exemplar of mixing animation, film and musical performance.
However, the opera’s conductor, James Conlon, was enlisted to check out reports that a special way of mounting “Flute” was taking place at Berlin’s Komische. Conlon’s enchantment with what Komische presented sealed the deal. The production to be presented was changed.
[Below: Tamino and Pamina (Lawrence Brownlee and Janai Brugger, inset in bottom right corner, submit together to their trial by fire; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The Production Company “1927” and the Genesis of the Idea
Of Berlin’s three great opera companies, the Komische is perhaps the least known to American audiences, yet I suspect much of what is done there would have resonance on this side of the pond. [For my assessment of an Offenbach offering that I think deserves consideration as a North American import, see: Komische Oper’s Impertinent, Perky “Perichole” – Berlin, May 28, 2011.]
The Komische Oper’s intendant is the Australian Barrie Kosky who attended a 2007 performance of the work of the British theater company “1927” (its title taken from the year of the first sound movie).
[Below: the Queen’s three ladies (Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra De Velasco and Peabody Southwell, center, below) send Price Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee, below, left) and Papageno (Rodion Pogossov, below, right) to be in possession of a magic flute (the fairy at the upper left) and magic glockenspiel (five figures at right) and accompanied by three genie boys (center, above); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The company 1927 is a collaborative effort between the Welsh screen animator Paul Barritt and the English actress and theatrical entrepreneur Suzanne Andrade.
I have reported on some stunning effects of combining live opera performances with visually arresting projections as evidenced by Heggie’s “Moby Dick” [World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010] and a different “Magic Flute” production – that of Jun Kaneko production for the San Francisco Opera [Perfect Game: Gunn, Shagimuratova Shine in New Kaneko-Designed “Magic Flute” – June 13, 2012.]
Yet these productions use the entire depths of the stage, with the animations projected onto various surfaces, sometimes over the stage proscenium, sometimes on the stage’s back walls, creating effects that differ substantively from the visual images that the 1927 team employs.
Barritt and Andrade developed a way to surround actors – who perform in an acting style reminiscent of silent screen acting – with animated film.
[Below: the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa, above, center, who is the center of a spider’s body) tries to control her daughter Pamina (Janai Brugger, center, below); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Although we are always conscious that we are seeing a live performance, the 1927 team creates the illusion that we are watching an animated silent movie on what is mostly a two-dimensional screen. The creators refer to this technique as combining two-dimensional and three-dimensional theatrical performance – in effect, moving the entire performance into what we might characterize as a modified two-dimensional space.
1927 Comes to the Komische
Impressed with the theatrical products of the artistic relationship between Barritt and Andrade, Kosky commissioned both artists, neither of whom had worked with any opera previously, to produce a “Magic Flute” for Berlin in 2012.
The production retained the opera’s German text whenever sung, but cut out the spoken dialogue. The information that would have been imparted with the dialogue was replaced with screens (dialogue boxes?) that provide the essence of what the spoken dialogue was about, yet keeping the spirit of the 1927 silent cinema style (each sign displayed accompanied by sections from two Mozart keyboard works played on a pianoforte, an instrument appropriate to Mozart’s time).
[Below: Papageno (Rodion Pogossov, right, in inset) and his dialogue box; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The parts of the Speaker and First and Second Priests were abbreviated and their functions combined into one character (Phillip Addis ) who was heard but not seen.
The Masonic trappings and German philosophical elements disappear, concentrating the audience’s attention on the fairy tale of Prince Tamino’s pursuit of the Princess Pamina.
Prince Charming Tamino’s quest for his bride is with the aid of a magic flute – who is an animated fairy, whose wake produces staves of musical notes.
[Below: Prince Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee, right in blue-green circle) is aided by a magic flute (fairy, inside spiral of musical notes); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Tamino is accompanied by the bird-catcher Papageno, who has his own love interest, and three young genie boys.
In Tamino’s quest for her, he is counseled by the wise man Sarastro as how to achieve enlightenment as well as a happy marriage.
[Below: Sarastro (Evan Boyer, top center inset, surrounded by flaming red circle) asserts his authority over Monostatos’ men; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Their adversaries are the Queen of the Night, portrayed as a giant tarantula, three cougarish ladies who serve the Queen, and Sarastro’s servant Monostatos.
Homages to Flappers and Nosferatu
The production’s scenery and costumes were the work of German designer Esther Bialas.
Her costuming scheme obviously is influenced by the silent era’s film stars and iconic characters. The best known silent film star memorialized in this zany production is Kansas comedian Buster Keaton, complete with pork pie hat. Sarastro, his priests, and later the Two Armored Men all wear stovepipe hats.
The program hints that the Pamina evokes the memory of Kansas silent screen actress Louise Brooks, who popularized the bob hair style.
[Below: Silent Screen Actress Louise Brooks, at age 20 in a 1926 promotional photograph.]
Since the production was designed for Berlin, a villainous homage was made to the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu (for which destruction was ordered after being deemed by German courts to be a copyright infringement of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)
One copy of the destroyed Nosferatu survived, and is now universally accessible on the Internet. The costume and makeup of Monostatos is obviously a close kin of Count Oriok, the Dracula knockoff.
[Below: Monostatos (Rodell Rosel, right) hopes to secure the love of Pamina (Janai Brugger, left) who has no such intention; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Production photos of sets and costumes only hint at the experience of this performance. Whimsical elements abound. The opera opens with Tamino running (in place) and crying for help. The three ladies throw blades that chase the offending dragon – Wily Coyote style.
When Tamino awakes he’s in the dragon’s stomach. Each of the ladies is lovesick for Tamino, each one’s beating heart floating out over the screen permitting target practice for the others. Papageno can be silenced for lying simply through electrical charges flowing through the Ladies’ fingers.
When Papageno and Pamina speak of the love between a man and woman, bees and hummingbirds harvest nectar out of a bed of flowers.The three boys are carried in a basket whose mode of locomotion is a giant moth. Sarastro’s procession is populated by an extraordinary menagerie of imaginary animals and automatons.
The magic flute is a Tinkerbellish fairy. She is always nude, and generates a wake of musical staves filled with notes. During Papageno’s trial, he drinks from a giant size cocktail glass, eliciting the kinds of pink elephants associated with Disney’s 1940 animated feature Dumbo.
The trials by Fire and Water were magical – a pleasure, rather than a trial for the audience.
The Musical Performance
To my mind, the flat surface of the silver screen worked to the advantage of the singers, whose voices were virtually always present at the front of the stage. The performance was the occasion for the Los Angeles Opera debuts of Ohio-born tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Tamino, Russian tenor Rodion Pogossov as Papageno, Hungarian soprano Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night, and Kentucky basso Evan Boyer as Sarastro.
Brownlee and his Pamina, Janai Brugger, and his Queen, his mother-in-law to be, Erika Miklosa, proved popular and arresting singers. Rodell Rosel notched yet another triumph as the sinister Monostatos. Boyer was a dignified Sarastro.
The three ladies – Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco and Peabody Southwell, were hilarious in these over-the-top roles. Amanda Woodbury was dazzlingly costumed as a showgirl Papagena, and, the German dialogue excised, never had to suffer the indignity of first appearing as an old hag.
Russian basso Vladimir Anikin continues his string of Fall 2013 operas in comprimario basso roles, here joined by the debuting Belarus tenor Vladimir Dmitruk. The cast was rounded out by Canadian baritone Phillip Addis as the Speaker, and Drew Pickett, Charles Connon and Jamal Jaffer as the three boys.
Whenever conducted by James Conlon, the Los Angeles Opera orchestra is always at top form. Anyone attending a Conlon opera performance should attend his unique lectures before each performance.
I recommend this production without reservation, not only for veteran opera goers and persons relatively new to opera, but also as a first time opera, regardless of one’s age.
For my interview with Lawrence Brownlee, see: Rossini Royalty – An Interview with Lawrence Brownlee
For a previous review of Conlon conducting this opera, see: Conlon’s Magical Revival of Mozart’s “Flute” at L. A. Opera – January 10, 2009.