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Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee, left) and Papageno (Rodion Pogossov, at right) with the Three Ladies (Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoé Velasco and Peabody Southwell) in Barrie Kosky's production of The Magic Flute at Los Angeles Opera
© Robert Millard 2013
Janai Brugger as Pamina
© Robert Millard 2013
Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night and Brownlee
© Robert Millard 2013
Good Regietheater can bring opera alive in unexpected and wonderful ways. Barrie Kosky's production of The Magic Flute, first seen at Berlin's Komische Oper in 2012 and revived this season at Los Angeles Opera (seen Nov. 23), sheds new light on a work with which we are perhaps all too familiar. Working in conjunction with Suzanne Andrade, the inventive director of the radical British theatre company, 1927, and Paul Barritt, who provides the teeming animation with which Andrade's performers interact, Kosky presents The Magic Flute in the style of the silent movies of the 1920s and '30s, with Schikaneder's dialogue replaced by melodramatic projected titles and the action playing out in the fast-moving but stilted style of that time. Odd though this might seem, the idiom of the nascent singspiel and that of early movies mesh completely; both stand in our imagination as examples of a popular art of charming naiveté that is still discovering itself, but in the right hands is already capable of delivering mature and often profound insights into human nature. To see Tamino bustling through life as Buster Keaton does not diminish his character; rather it sharpens our awareness of his mission and brings him closer to our hearts.
The production takes place on a large vertical screen; singers stand on small plinths that rotate them in front of the screen, usually several feet above the ground; the forestage is also used for the cartoon-like action. Despite the actors' limited scope for movement, they interact constantly and with astoundingly precise timing with the animation. Often, this bewitchingly exaggerates the comedy: whenever any character declares love for another, a ballet of beating hearts flies across the screen. Elsewhere, animation enhances the singers' thoughts, as when the screen produces alluring lines of female beauty during "Dies Bildnis." The Queen of the Night appears as a gigantic nightmarish spider. Most richly of all, the animations explore the multiple symbolism of the action, displaying the power of music bringing harmony to a world in strife. The animation also brings to the fore the scientific endeavors of Sarastro's brotherhood, emphasizing thereby the aspirations of the Enlightenment. The singers act in whiteface with the deadpan seriousness that was so common in early movie comedy.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening is the high profile this production gave to Mozart's music. Maestro James Conlon had to follow the tempos of the animation. The only time he was on his own was at the overture, which, after a splendid solemn opening developed a muscular power that was in strong contrast to the frequently chatty and busy readings that one often hears of this piece of music.
Several principals were making their L.A. debuts, among them Lawrence Brownlee, whose clear, limpid tones were entirely appropriate for Tamino. Also, new to L.A. was Rodion Pogossov as a delightfully scurrilous and lazy Papageno. (A cartoon cat did his bird-catching for him, not very well.) Erika Miklósa, another debutante, easily soared into the stratosphere as the Queen of the Night and won tumultuous applause. Evan Boyer made his debut with a soft-grained Sarastro. The one returnee among the principals was Janai Brugger, known in L.A. primarily for her comic roles. As Pamina, she revealed depths of vocal pathos and an intriguingly ambivalent tone between light and dark. Rodell Rosel increased his reputation as both a comic and sinister actor with a Munster-inspired Monostatos. Yet another newcomer, Philip Addis, as the (unseen) Speaker, delivered the most impressive account I have yet heard of some of Mozart's most noble music. The three ladies were sung with resourceful comedy by Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoé Velasco and Peabody Southwell, the three boys by Drew Pickett, Charles Connon and Jamel Jaffer, and the two Armed Men, also dead ringers for old Abe, were Vladimir Dmitruk and Valentin Anikin. At the very end, just as we had become accustomed to this silent-movie recasting of Mozart, the delightfully frisky Amanda Woodbury arrived onscreen as Papagena in a costume taken stitch by stitch from the original production of The Magic Flute in 1791. It was a lovely ending that bridged the ages and left us with an enhanced sense both of the timelessness of Mozart's comedy and of its nobility.
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