LA Opera’s new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote) has to be one of the most imaginative presentations of that work - ever. In fact, it could be the most remarkable presentation of any opera you will ever see.
Although based on a complicated allegory that many of the audience may not quite grasp, there is truly something for everybody. The story is based on secret societies, and such esoteric stuff is presented in adorable characterizations both human and animated, which become ever-more creative and mind-blowing as the show progresses. And at the same time, all these effect serve to help illuminate the plot points of the whimsical story and its moral lessons.
This LA Opera version – co-produced with Minnesota Opera – reinvents opera itself – transforming it in digital-era Hollywood style into a multimedia experience. The sets and lighting effects appear as continuously animated graphics, projected onto a blank white backdrop. Principal characters make their entrances as they are rotated on turntables from behind the screen to appear at second-story height above the stage floor. Their costumes are parodies of early twentieth-century film and cartoon characters. Fanciful elements of their costumes, such as animated wings and props, are illusions of projected light embedded in the animation. The spoken-word portions of the libretto have been replaced by silent-movie title cards, as the orchestra plays brief excerpts adapted from other Mozart works. The visual impression is made all the more dreamlike by the vintage-movie effects in the graphics – flicker and scratches-and-dust.
It is worth the price of admission to see and hear the wonderful Erika Miklosa in her LA Opera debut as the Queen of the Night, dressed in white. With the help of Paul Barritt’s animation design, she takes over the stage both vocally and physically as a huge spider with legs that encompass nearly the whole stage. Both she and Janai Brugger, who plays her daughter Pamina, have some of the most clear and sweet high soprano voices ever to grace the stage. Miklosa has played the role nearly 400 times, starting in her native Hungary.
Three little-boy butterflies singling treble, all dressed as Harry Potter - Drew Pickett, and Charles Connon, and Jamal Jaffer - fly onstage at poignant moments to help guide the main characters - just one of the many strokes of genius in this production.
The Russian Rodion Pogossov plays Papageno in a low-key humorous, Chaplinesque style. He is a kind of everyman who wants simple pleasures of eating and romance and is not too involved in the rituals. He is adorably followed around by a spunky animated cat. A true talent, his lovely baritone is accompanied by his clever physical expression. Rodell Rosel, who is concurrently playing Bardolf in Falstaff at LA Opera, is delightfully unrecognizable as Monostatos, the icky henchman who acts like a vampire. He also fulfills his role to a “t.” Lawrence Brownlee as the male ingénue Tamino, manages to portray an innocent and loving quality that wins the audience’s heart. Evan Boyer as Sarastro is also and interesting choice for the complex Sarastro, mild-mannered and yet alarming. . Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco and Peabody Southwell as the Queen’s ladies, acting and dressed like 1920s, are cheeky and wonderful. Their intentions are often emphasized by the flying of animated hearts. The casting of the whole show is outstanding and there are no false notes. The orchestra under James Conlon is brilliantly synchronistic.
Kudos to co-directors Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky, with associate director Tobias Ribitzki, for delivering on their refreshing vision of this piece, as well as to Paul Barritt for animation design and Esther Bialas for carrying it through the scenery and costume design. The rich heritage of early-movie styles is stunning – Papageno is dressed as Buster Keaton, Pamina as Betty Boop and Monostatos is a ringer for the ghastly, lurking vampire Nosferatu.
Mozart’s opera itself is unusual enough – the story is a fantasy allegory about humankind’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. It’s a struggle of good contending with evil based on the ancient Egyptian themes that formed the basis of the secret society of Freemasons in Mozart’s day. Freemasons (the forebears of today’s Masonic Lodge) go through thirty-four degrees, or achievement steps, of ritual. The goal of this process is personal development, community service, and spiritual maturity. In Mozart’s story, the progression is summarized in three trials through which the main characters must pass – the trial of silence, the trial of temptation, and the trial of fire and water. It all seems pretty scary because they are told, if they fail, they will die.
Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee) is a well-intentioned young prince. At rise, he finds himself in a dark wood under attack by a fire-breathing dragon. He’s rescued as the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa) kills the dragon and dispatches three ladies (Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco and Peabody Southwell) to take the prince under their care. But the bewildered Tamino thinks that it is the Queen’s servant Papageno (Rodion Pogossov), a bird-catcher, who has helped him, and together they resolve to make their way out of the dark wood. Along the way, Tamino falls in love with the Queen’s daughter Pamina (Janai Brugger), who has come under the control of the Queen’s archrival and priest of the sun Sarastro (Evan Boyer). The Queen wants Pamina, assisted by Tamino, to kill Sarastro.
All this would seem to be a fairly straightforward good-versus-evil story, right? Of course not. In the allegory, the roles of the characters of queen and dark priest are exactly reversed. The priest Sarastro (his darkness underscored by Boyer’s resonant bass) turns out to be the spiritual master of Freemasonry. The Queen is the proponent of blissful ignorance – she’d like nothing better than for humans to dwell with her in perpetual night. But Miklosa’s heavenly soprano, along with her dazzling white costume, have us thinking she’s the essence of good.
Tamino, Papageno, and Pamina all come under Sarastro’s control, as he is assisted by Monostatos (Rodell Rosel). Monostatos is another character whose stereotype leads us astray. Officially, his role is overseer of Sarastro’s temple. In the story, he’s prison guard to the three protagonists. In fact, despite his terrifying appearance, he explains in his aria at the opening of Act II that he is just an ugly guy doing his job who would like a little nookie. Such is Mozart’s wicked sense of humor, which underlies the story at every turn.
It is Sarastro who forces the three characters through the three trials. And he says they will “pay with their lives” if they fail to meet his standards. He’s so menacing, we fear he will destroy them no matter what. But here’s another reversal – there is no way to fail. In his trials, Tamino is made to confront death and seemingly to forsake his earthly love of Pamina. The wisdom of the trial is that death is an illusion, and there is nothing to fear. So if he failed (which he doesn’t) and he did indeed die, he would emerge in the same place – enlightened, and with Pamina at his side. Comic-relief sidekick Papageno also scores at the end, as Sarastro presents him with a soul-mate, the pretty and birdlike Papagena (Amanda Woodbury).
The stark good and evil roles, and the reversals, might make us think it’s all about men against women. Freemasonry was a society of prominent men, after all. Tamino and Pamina go through the trials together. The lesson of the fable – as Mozart tells it – is that men and women are partners and equals.
The concept of the production is rooted in the theater of German Expressionism, as practiced by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil. The two-dimensional movie screen is what those artists would call an alienation effect. It’s done to distance the audience from their emotional reactions – and emphasize a story of ideas. And that’s just what Mozart intended – all with a sense of whimsy and wit that will have you smiling – not only about this delightful production – but also about what it’s like to be a silly human obsessed with needless fears and yet possessed with boundless hope.
LA Opera's The Magic Flute is a must-see experience for both intellectuals and children of all ages!
Photos by Robert Millard for LA Opera
Georja Umano is an actress and animal activist.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Los Angeles Opera
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 687-3490 fax
Saturday November 23, 2013 07:30 PM
Saturday November 30, 2013 07:30 PM
Thursday December 05, 2013 07:30 PM
Sunday December 08, 2013 02:00 PM
Wednesday December 11, 2013 07:30 PM
Friday December 13, 2013 08:30 PM
Sunday December 15, 2013 02:00 PM