Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Magic Flute, Silently into that Dark Night at Philadelphia

Ben Bliss as Tamino in Magic Flute


Magic Flute at Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia’s just concluded fall season, Festival O17, mounted only one of its five operas at the venerable Academy of Music, but it was a doozy. Mozart’s Magic Flute, in the now iconic 2012 production from Berlin's Komische Oper, enjoyed its twentieth whistle stop on a worldwide tour that shows no signs of slowing down.

Reimagined as a silent movie, this version of Mozart's and Emanuel Schikaneder’s rescue story blends its faux-film with live singing and action. Jointly staged by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade, with witty 1920’s projections by Paul Barritt (the latter two forming the company, 1927), its imagery unfolds in the frenetic action of a comedic dreamscape.

The Queen's Three Ladies

Magic Flute is a singspiel, a particularly Austro-German stage work akin to the American musical, where singing and spoken dialogue intersperse with each other. As innovation, Kosky and company projected on the stage screen short exclamations in lieu of the customary, but awkward, dialogue between protagonists that halts the flow of Mozart’s arias and folk tunes. Like the billboarding of old silent movies, these told the audience all it needed to know of essential action between numbers. Accompanying the words in the pit on an 18th century fortepiano were excerpts from two of Mozart’s piano fantasies,  K475 in C-minor and K397 in D-minor.

The resulting effect made a stylistically consistent musical continuity with the existing score. Surprisingly and charmingly, the musical interpolations here invoked the keyboard tropes of the silent-movie era, giving them an even more authentic feel.

On one level Magic Flute is a love story, actually a few pairs of them (some attempted, some achieved), where separations and usurpations occupy and intensify most of the adventure, with time even for moralizing commentary by three childlike spirits.

But Mozart's last opera is importantly also a parable of growth and maturation. Trials and tests determine who gains his or her worthy partner, as they also reveal who is unworthy of a partner. It's a parable that confirmed for the 18th century an ideal social order where aristocrats came out on top, servants muddled through, and troublemakers got their comeuppance. The score is filled with Masonic riffs and symbolism, yet none of it is all that necessary for today's audiences, who can appreciate the folk-like charm of what became Mozart's most popular stage work.

Ben Bliss’s suave tenor was the black-tuxedoed, slick-haired, matinee-idol Tamino who, though stressed, projected an appropriate seriousness of purpose. The challenge for Tamino is to determine who is telling him the truth. And because he is a serious person, the many trials he and his eventual partner must endure lead them to that truth. Initially “rescued” from a serpent by the Queen of the Night’s three ladies, and soon smitten with the portrait of Pamina (Rachel Sterrenberg), Tamino believes he’s on a mission to rescue his girl from the evil Sarastro. Yet he soon learns he journeys not to, but from an enemy, and not from, but to a friend.

Tamino (Bliss) meets the Queen of the Night (Olga Pudova)

The audience knows that Olga Pudova’s Queen of the Night is up to no good from the get-go. Projected full-screen around her live head is the leggy animated body of a black-widow spider. Pudova’s later vengeance aria was particularly impressive, with its spot-on intonation and effortless stratospheric thrusts of bell-like tones. 

Bass Peixin Chen’s Sarastro, his basso vocalizations properly serene and reassuring, was often encountered in animation as a diagramed brain with its machine gears turning, symbolic of his role as caretaker for the optimistic Enlightenment’s rationalism. In his brain is Kunst (art) and science.
Tamino (Bliss) meets Sarastro (Peixin Chen)

The vigorous Brenton Ryan, his Monostatos looking like a love-sick Nosferatu, was menacingly thirsty for the Pamina who is always just out of his desperate grasp. This production, to its credit, manages to make one believe she is just within that grasp.

Monostatos (Brenton Ryan) with dialogue projection
Tamino’s easy-going side kick, Papageno (Jarrett Ott, a pliant baritone), was dressed in the brown-suit and flat-hat of a Buster Keaton. If he failed every test of courage and self-discipline, he was forgiven for his redeeming good heart, and especially for first finding and then bringing Pamina to Tamino. The later encounter of Papagena (an an energetic Ashley Robillard) with her desperate to wed Papageno made up for its brevity with the boundless good cheer of their bird-song duet.

The slightly muted pit orchestra was elegantly propelled throughout the evening by conductor David Charles Abell. While the Academy of Music's somewhat dowdy chamber does not possess a warm resonance for either orchestra in the pit or voices on stage, the projection of those voices carried well enough to count when needed.

Papageno (Ott) and Papagena (Robillard)
I had been disappointed four years ago with the initial run of this Magic Flute at the co-producing Los Angeles Opera. The staging seemed 2-D flat, its projected colors washed-out, and its gags hard to hear,  a clever gimmick that didn't quite jell.

When it worked so much better in Philadelphia, I guessed it had undergone some kind of tinkering after that initial run. But Komische Oper director Philip Bröking, seated next to me at the September 15 performance, assured me it was the same production I had seen at L.A. four years ago.

L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, half-again larger than the Academy of Music, may have had something to do with perceptions. Here in Philadelphia, a smooth interactive choreography blended singers and screen projections to maximum advantage. Color presence and depth were vivid, vocals vibrant, and gags both audible and witty. It was, to put it simply, a Magic Flute for the ages.

Lesson learned: If at first an opera production doesn't work for you, give it a try at another house.


Photos: Opera Philadelphia

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