Germany Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Komische Oper Orchester und Chor / Henrik Nánási (conductor), Komische Oper, Berlin, 12.9.2014 (MC)
Pamina: Maureen McKay
Tamino: Jussi Myllys
The Queen of the Night: Beate Ritter
Sarastro/Speaker: Alexey Antonov
Papageno: Tom Erik Lie
Papagena: Sheida Damghani
Monostatos: Peter Renz
First Lady: Nina Bernsteiner
Second Lady: Karolina Gumos
Third Lady: Nadine Weissmann
First Man: Timothy Richards
Second Man: Philipp Meierhöfer
Three Boys: Soloists of the Tölzer Knabenchores: Pascal Pfeiffer, Laurenz Strobl & Julian Mezger
Musical direction: Henrik Nánási
Concept: ‘1927’ Theatre Company (Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt) and Barrie Kosky
Staging: Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky
Direction: Tobias Ribitzki
Animations: Paul Barritt
Stage and costume design: Esther Bialas
Dramaturgy: Ulrich Lenz
Lighting: Diego Leetz
Choir trainer: David Cavelius
This was my first visit to the Komische Oper, Berlin and I truly hope it’s the first of many. On offer was a collaboration, not dissimilar to Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder’s theatre group in Vienna, of Mozart’s fairy tale like opera ‘The Magic Flute’ devised jointly by Barrie Kosky and the theatre company ‘1927’
This most popular of operas had been drastically freshened up by the production team led by Tobias Ribitzki, visually evoking the epoch of silent films with the remarkable integration of animation. The singers dressed in costumes of the 1920s perform with the animation projected onto the wooden screen that filled the whole stage area. Another major change was enlivening the often tiresome spoken dialogue by projecting title cards onto the screen like silent movies, accompanied principally by what sounded like a fortepiano improvising popular tunes in the manner of a house accompanist.
I can imagine how this audacious interpretation by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky would challenge the purist but I can’t begin to explain how gloriously inventive was the animation created by designer Paul Barritt, a medium that delighted and frequently amused the audience from start to finish. The often slapstick nature of the production did rather create a degree of disruption in the audience but I soon got used to the lively atmosphere of the occasion.
The fast moving electronic images on the screen included crawling and flying insects, terrible thunder crashes and lightning bolts and the Queen of the Night appearing as the head of a giant spider. Some of the animations were side-splittingly hilarious namely when Papageno, decked out in a black suit with pink trim was surrounded by pink female elephants seated in champagne glasses prior to the elephants flying across a pitch black sky. Another animation highlight was when Sarastro and two of his look-alikes were stood in an elevator which looked as if it was descending into the bowels of the earth. The role of the Speaker took on the appearance of a giant black head with a white mouth complete with internal mechanical cog-like workings and in one of the Speaker’s scenes Pamina was attacked by an army of tiny spiders followed by a downpour of daggers. There was much amusement when a dozen black wild beast heads poked out of chimney stacks before their legs turned into dancing girls, then the beasts were torched by colourful jets of flame. Whether deliberate or not the most impact was created when the love struck Papageno and the blonde haired Papagena, decked out in a brassy yellow show girl outfit, exploded in a cloud of smoke/dry ice that billowed out reaching the stalls area and into my nostrils.
None of the masonic influences prevalent in the opera were highlighted leaving behind varied characterisations of the predominantly slapstick world of silent movie stars such as Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton. Any doubts that I may have had about the musical integrity of Mozart’s masterpiece being eroded in all the animated drama were unfounded as the cast without exception gave committed and assured performances. Tamino played by Jussi Myllys was a mainly static role, except when he was dashing around to avoid being hit by an animated clock pendulum. Dressed mainly throughout in a dinner suit Myllys as the love struck suitor sang with delightful affection if revealing little in the way of personality. Vocally the star of the show was Maureen McKay playing the demure Pamina the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Clothed in black and white to look ordinary McKay was highly assured, with a lovely creamy tone and impeccable diction, delivering just the right amount of expressive yearning for Tamino’s affections.
As the bird-catcher Papageno, Tom Erik Lie was attired for most of the production in a mustard coloured suit with a straw boater as opposed to the traditional ridiculous costume of feathers. Lie acts splendidly and his clear voice, which really required additional tone colour, was certainly adequate. The bearded Sarastro played by Alexey Antonov was dressed in a black and grey morning suit with a tall black top hat. Antonov has a fine smooth voice with a firm projection however some strain was evident in his low register and a touch more menace would have helped.
Seen virtually exclusively as the head of an animated giant spider Beate Ritter played the spectacular role of The Queen of the Night. The light toned Ritter took the Queen’s celebrated coloratura arias well despite a tendency to shrill and jump at the high notes.
Monostatos the slave of Sarastro is by tradition intended to be a Moor. With his long grey frock coat and deathly white pallor Peter Renz as Monostatos looked more like a portrayal of Max Schreck in the vampire film Nosferatu appearing both creepy and threatening. The production had the advantage of excellent support from The Three Ladies and the Three Boys (all soloists of the Tölzer Knabenchor). Conductor Henrik Nánási obtained splendid playing from the Komische Oper Orchester and the Chorus was in fine voice all evening. Such a commonly seen issue in an opera house, Nánási didn’t seem sure whether or not to pause after a major aria to allow applause.
The Komische Oper has the wonderful advantage of having the text of the libretto displayed on the rear of the seat in front. By pressing a button one of five languages can be selected and the red text doesn’t glare from the side, above and below. I noticed that most of the audience chose to use this helpful facility which should be de rigueur in opera houses.