Die Zauberflöte
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In Review > North America

Die Zauberflöte

ST. PAUL
Minnesota Opera
11/14/15

SELDOM, IF EVER, HAS MINNESOTA OPERA revived a production a mere year-and-a-half after its initial presentation. But the company’s 2014 mounting of Komische Oper Berlin’s globe-trotting, genre-bending Die Zauberflöte, a collaboration with the British avant-theater troupe 1927, was so magical—not least at the box office—that an early revival (seen Nov. 14) proved irresistible. To enlarge its footprint, the Twin Cities company, noted for its educational efforts, took the production north, to Duluth, Minn., where it organized an array of exemplary outreach programs over a five-week span.

Conceived by Komische Opera’s Barrie Kosky and 1927’s Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, the production, undeniably ingenious, is a milestone in the integration of live theater and projected animation. Essentially two-dimensional, it unfolds on or just before a large screen; performers, sometimes reduced to singing heads, pop in and out through apertures in the screen, their movements dazzlingly synchronized with Barritt’s hand-drawn animation (which, inter alia, helps compensate for the complete disappearance of the opera’s spoken dialogue). The busy screen imagery, typically tongue-in-cheek, leans on the look-and-feel of the silent film and its era: Papageno presents as Buster Keaton, Pamina as Louise Brooks. Reminders of Disney, Yellow Submarine, and The Wizard of Oz season the stew. Red lips and beating hearts à la Hallmark dance across the screen; pink elephants loll in cocktail glasses. A Tinker Bell-like creature represents the flute of the title, trailing staves filled with musical notes. Intertitles (accompanied by an amplified fortepiano) and supertitles add further layers of stimulus. The level of visual invention is consistently high, the technology impressive, the whimsy sometimes refreshing. But too often the sensory deluge usurps the spectator’s attention, leaving Mozart to play second fiddle.

By Act II, fatigue set in. But if one grew impatient with so much cleverness and hyperactivity—as I confess I sometimes did—one could simply shut one’s eyes and hear a committed performance of Die Zauberflöte. French tenor Julien Behr, singing only a day after the terrorist attacks in Paris, was a noble, ardent Tamino, his instrument warm yet focused, with a touch of squillo. Behr’s caressing, rapturous account of “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” shone with conviction, his handling of the text particularly adroit. His Pamina, Christie Conover, was a wonder, at once probing and elegant; in “Ach, ich fühl’s” she plumbed the depths of grief with singing of the utmost refinement.

Andrew Wilkowske’s comedic gifts, happily familiar to Twin Cities audiences, have had no more flattering showcase than Papageno. Charismatic but not unduly hammy, he made the scene of the bird-catcher’s near-suicide a thing of unaccustomed emotional consequence and dramatic weight. Bergen Baker, replacing the indisposed Tracey Engleman on short notice, was a comely Papagena, tricked out in one of set/costume designer Esther Bialas’s most eye-catching get-ups.

Jeni Houser, acting without benefit of her body—here replaced by a screen-filling, knife-throwing arachnid—conjured the complexity of the Queen of the Night, too often obscured by her coloratura. In “O zitt’re nicht,” Houser was commanding and duplicitous, yet also vulnerable. She has a bright future above the staff. Benjamin Sieverding’s fluid, youthful-sounding Sarastro, while attractive in timbre, lacked the final ounce of gravitas; he suggested his lowest notes without quite nailing them. John Robert Lindsey’s creepy Monostatos recalled Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Hostage to the pacing of the animation, music director Michael Christie conducted with something less than his wonted elasticity. At times, differing rhythmic frames seemed to be in play: singers pulled in one direction, orchestra (not altogether up to its usual standard) in another, animation in a third, inducing a vague sense of insecurity. The opera’s final chorus—performed conventionally, without projections—came not only as resolution, but as relief: Mozart, for the first time since the Overture, was center stage.  —Larry Fuchsberg 

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