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 by a brilliant team that includes "1927", a company specializing in silent-era conventions, this version of Mozart's and Emanuel Schikaneder’s singspiel has its live singing and action aligned with quirky faux-film techniques. Jointly staged by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade, with witty projections on a continuous full-stage scrim by Paul Barritt, its imagery unfolds in the frenetic action of a comedic dreamscape. Characters on stage are an amalgam of weird, fantasy bodies (human and other) projected on the scrim, with the heads and torsos of the live singers popping out of it (see photo above).

The Queen's Three Ladies

The singspiel is a particularly Austro-German stage work with parallels to the American musical, where singing and spoken dialogue intersperse. They are typically performed for modern audiences with musical numbers sung in the original German and the spoken dialogue in the language of the country where the work is presented. But as innovation here, Kosky and company project on the scrim short exclamations ("intertitles" in silent movie lingo) in lieu of the customary dialogue. The efficient sign-boarding keeps the action flowing between numbers and tells the audience all the essentials of the plot.

In the pit, an 18th century fortepiano accompanies the intertitles with excerpts from two of Mozart’s piano fantasies,  K475 in C-minor and K397 in D-minor. The interpolations add stylistically consistent musical continuity to the existing score, while sounding like silent-movie keyboard tropes, lending charm and authenticity to the production's Roaring Twenties conceit.

Magic Flute, like Mozart's earlier Abduction from the Seraglio, is a rescue story within a love story, actually a few pairs of them, where separations and usurpations intensify the adventure. Moralizing commentary by three childlike "spirits" adds to the charm. But Mozart's last and most popular stage work is, despite its folk-like character, also a parable of character development.

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 (or those who aspire to their courtly behavior) come out on top, weaker-charactered servants muddle through, and out-and-out troublemakers get their comeuppance. The score is filled with Masonic symbolism, mostly ignored here, with none of it all that important for today's audiences.

Ben Bliss’s suave tenor was the black-tuxedoed, slick-haired, matinee-idol Tamino who, though stressed, projected an appropriate seriousness of purpose. The first challenge for Tamino is to determine who is telling him the truth. Initially “rescued” from a serpent by the Queen of the Night’s three ladies, and soon smitten with the portrait of Pamina (a radiant Rachel Sterrenberg), Tamino initially believes he’s on a mission to rescue her from the evil Sarastro. Yet he soon learns he journeys not to, but from an enemy, and not from, but to a friend. The many trials Tamino and Pamina must endure lead them to further character growth and prepare them for their journeys in life.

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 rendition of the famous vengeance aria was impressive; her spot-on intonation and stratospheric bell-like tones making it the most effortless Queen's wrath I have ever heard.

Bass Peixin Chen’s Sarastro, his deep vocalizations warm, serene, and reassuring, was often encountered in animation as a diagramed brain of turning machine gears, symbolic of his role as caretaker for the 18th century Enlightenment's optimistic rationalism. In his brain is found true Kunst (art) and science.

Tamino (Bliss) meets Sarastro (Peixin Chen)

The vigorous Brenton Ryan's Monostatos, Tamino's rival, looked like a love-sick but nasty Nosferatu, menacing his thirst for the Pamina who is always just out of his desperate grasp. This production, to its credit, manages to make one believe she is always about to be in that grasp.

Monostatos (Brenton Ryan) with intertitle dialogue
Tamino’s easy-going side-kick, Papageno (pliant baritone Jarrett Ott), 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, with his redeeming good heart, forgiven, especially for first finding and then bringing Pamina to Tamino. The later encounter of Papagena (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 dowdy chamber does not possess a warm resonance for either orchestra in the pit or voices on stage, its size was perfect for this production's visual element, and its projection of 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 too 2-D flat, its projected colors washed-out, and its gags hard to hear; overall a clever gimmick that didn't quite jell.

When it worked so much better in Philadelphia, I guessed it had undergone, after that initial run, some kind of clever tinkering. But Komische Oper director Philip Bröking, by chance 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 (and that much more distant from the audience), 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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