United States Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Choir Soloists of the Komische Oper Berlin, Members of the Tölzer Boys Choir, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra / Louis Langrée (conductor), David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City. 17.7.2019. (BH)
Co-Directors – Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky
Animation – Paul Barritt
Concept – 1927 (Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt) and Barrie Kosky
Stage and Costume Design – Esther Bialas
Lighting Design – Diego Leetz
Pamina – Maureen McKay
Tamino – Julien Behr
Queen of the Night – Audrey Luna
Sarastro/Speaker – Dimitry Ivashchenko
Papageno – Rodion Pogossov
Papagena – Talya Lieberman
Monostatos – Johannes Dunz
First Lady – Ashley Milanese
Second Lady – Karolina Gumos
Third Lady – Ezgi Kutlu
First Armed Man – Timothy Oliver
Second Armed Man – Samuli Taskinen
Over the last decade, use of technology in opera has been on the ascent. At the Metropolitan Opera, two blockbusters by the artist William Kentridge — first of Shostakovich’s The Nose (2010) and then of Berg’s Lulu (2015) — combined live action with extravagant images, fluttering around elaborate sets. Two Nico Muhly operas, Two Boys (2013) and Marnie (2018), also used crystal-clear projections to memorable effect.
But an innovative company in Britain called 1927 has upped the ante, working with director Barrie Kosky in an enchanting reimagining of Mozart’s classic, The Magic Flute. The 2012 production, originally created for the Komische Oper Berlin, has been seen all over the world, including at opera companies in the United States. This week it finally appeared in New York, to open the 2019 Mostly Mozart Festival.
At the core of the concept are state-of-the-art animated sequences, seamlessly integrated with the live singers. Readers of a certain age may recall the Czechoslovakian multimedia troupe, Laterna magika, which debuted at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1959, and continues its pioneering work today. Kosky’s colleagues from the British firm were Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt — the latter responsible for the animated sequences — with 1920s period costume designs by Esther Bialas, all precisely lit by Diego Leetz, reaching new heights of exactitude. The collaborative skill on display was enthralling.
The set is a single wall — floor-to-ceiling, left to right — with a half-dozen doors, which swivel open to reveal the singers. In the opening scenes, as three ladies straight out of Cabaret try to woo Tamino, red hearts flood out of them — no, not Valentine-style, but actual, anatomically correct hearts — which dissipate on contact. Later, as Papageno longs to find his Papagena, he takes a drink from an oversized pink martini glass, only to be surrounded by cavorting pink elephants.
More fanciful imagery abounds. The flute itself is transformed into a sparkling fairy, darting around the set and leaving trails of musical staves in her wake. Three boys who guide Papageno morph into a charming trio of butterflies. As parades of gear-laden, steampunk ducks lope across and Aubrey Beardsley monkeys roll by, fireflies hoisted overhead serve as lamps. One friend remarked, ‘It really is like watching a movie’.
Some liberties were taken — enough that it might be fair to call this a ‘reimagining’ of Mozart’s classic. For some of the stormy climaxes, the instrumentation was augmented with metal thunder sheets, bringing to mind foley artists of yore. Dialogue sequences were excised in favor of projected titles, reflecting the silent film aesthetic, as additional music — Mozart piano works — filled in the audio. (Imagine the soundtrack for a Chaplin film.) And in some sequences the singers were briefly amplified, which again, may not have pleased purists, but felt congruent with the directors’ cinematic concept.
Nevertheless, the intrepid cast sounded superb, and seemed delighted to be challenged to match their comic timing with the special effects onslaught. As the hapless, tuxedo-clad Tamino, Julien Behr sang with sweetness and purity, recoiling in fear at lightning bolts, or running breathlessly through endless hallways. Audrey Luna, as the Queen of the Night, stepped in at the last minute (for an indisposed Christina Poulitsi), and her character — a massive, skeletal spider, ensnaring characters in her web while hurling lightning bolts and daggers — radiated malevolence.
As the chartreuse-suited Papageno, Rodion Pogossov made the most of his comic moments, channeling Chaplin here and there, with a whiff of Marcel Marceau. And as Papagena, the cheerful Talya Lieberman seemed airlifted from a circus sideshow — not least when emerging after an explosion, covered with soot, as if shot out of a cannon. Johannes Dunz was appropriately sinister as Monostatos — especially when trying to restrain a leashed pack of dogs — evoking Nosferatu with a deliciously evil demeanor.
As a solemn counterweight to the hijinks elsewhere, Dimitry Ivashchenko’s stentorian bass gave Sarastro some gravitas, and the trio of ladies — Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos, and Ezgi Kutlu — made a sort of 1920s Andrews Sisters (but even more hilarious) whenever they rotated into view. Timothy Oliver and Samuli Taskinen offered admirable timing and the same vocal sensitivity on display everywhere.
As Pamina, Maureen McKay almost stole the show, channeling Louise Brooks, and singing with rapturous purity. Intonation never flagged, and her damsel-in-distress persona suited the silent film approach. Members of the Komische Oper choir (in roles both human and not), lent firm choral bloom to their scenes. And the trio from the Tölzer Boys Choir — in identical eyeglasses and nerdy schoolboy attire — were charming whenever they appeared.
The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra — assembled from some of the country’s top musicians — was as fresh, snappy, and inviting as could be imagined. Conductor Louis Langrée — incredibly, in his first outing with this opera — adopted fleet tempos, and nudged the musicians toward elegance and lightness. The rocketing overture alone foretold a night of fairytale exuberance.