A visual bag of tricks: Barrie Kosky’s The Magic Flute returns to LA Opera

18/11/2019

United StatesUnited States Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / James Conlon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 16.11.2019. (JRo)

Theo Hoffman (Papageno) and Zuzana Markova (Pamina) (c) Cory Weaver

Production:
Production – Suzanne Andrade / Barrie Kosky
Animation – Paul Barritt
Sets & Costumes – Esther Bialas
Chorus director – Grant Gershon
Associate Director – Tobias Ribitzki
Concept – 1927 (Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt) and Barrie Kosky

Cast:
Tamino – Bogdon Volkov
Pamina – Zuzana Marková
Queen of the Night – So Young Park
Sarastro – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Papageno – Theo Hoffman
First Lady – Erica Petrocelli
Second Lady – Vivien Shotwell
Third Lady – Taylor Raven
Monostatos – Frederick Ballentine
Papagena – Sarah Vautour
The Speaker – Michael J. Hawk
First Armored Man – Robert Stahley
Second Armored Man – Steve Pence

Since it was first performed at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2012, Barry Kosky’s joyful, imaginative and dizzying production of The Magic Flute has been a favorite with audiences internationally. This is my third review of what has proven to be a big draw at LA Opera. In 2013, I marveled over the visual trappings of the production (review1), while I was more concerned in 2016 with the focus of the piece (review2). Now, three years later, I am troubled by the sublimation of the singers to the concept.

Kosky’s The Magic Flute makes a successful leap from the late eighteenth century of Mozart’s mythic setting to the early days of silent films crossed with German cabaret, Expressionist cinema and Hollywood animation. Paul Barritt’s projected animation is wonderfully inventive, and Suzanne Andrade’s original direction is a marvel of timing and mechanics. But the question for me in 2019 is whether or not it wears well on repeated viewings. Once the novelty of animated pink elephants, flying lips and hearts, skeletal vultures, black rats in garter belts and dancing bells (also wearing garter belts) wears off, are the singers able to create unique performances within the structure of the piece?

After seeing three different casts tackle the logistics and constraints imposed on them by the nature of the production, it’s apparent that there is little room for personal interpretation. Between interacting with the video projections and, often, literally being strapped to the immense wall that forms the screen, the singers have a very limited range of physical and emotional tools at their disposal. Consequently, there is little difference in the performances of the principals from cast to cast.

Rather than revel in the deep space that a stage performance affords, the production merges the live performers with the backdrop, emphasizing the two-dimensionality of film rather than the theatre’s three dimensions. These concerns are somewhat mitigated for the front- and center-orchestra patrons who can see the principals clearly and read more depth into the set and nuance into the performances, but the more distant audience doesn’t have that opportunity. Still, as directed, the characters have the chance to channel their inner silent film star personas – mugging, sobbing, skulking and fleeing their pursuers whether human or beast.

Despite all the distractions swirling around her, Zuzana Marková’s singing was notable. She gave voice to Pamina’s tender side as well as her courageous resolve with her bright and supple soprano. Bogdon Volkov was a sweet-voiced Tamino, more reserved than ardent. Theo Hoffman as Papageno used his prodigious comedic chops to channel Buster Keaton to perfection. So Young Park did a stirring reprisal of her Queen of the Night role from 2016, once again enduring the physical constraints of the production: she was swaddled in a cocoon and headpiece in order to project an animated spider body on her frame.

Sarastro may be the most lackluster role created for this production. Sitting stock still on a shelf in a high window in the video wall backdrop gives a singer little opportunity to personalize the part. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo made the best of it, though notes in the deeper register were somewhat lost.

Frederick Ballentine as Monostatos relished every lascivious moment of his Nosferatu-like character. He became the one singer who was able to differentiate himself from his predecessors at LAO by dint of his beautifully colored tenor, unrestrained enthusiasm and comedic interpretation. As the Three Ladies, Erica Petrocelli, Vivien Shotwell and Taylor Raven were excellent, creating a much-needed juxtaposition to the questionable guise of the Queen as spider woman.

James Conlon and the LAO Orchestra kept the production under the magic spell of Mozart’s beloved music, in spite of the visual fantasies on stage that threatened to swallow the cast at every moment.

Perhaps the rich diet of visual delights of this Magic Flute will continue to entice new audiences to experience opera (and that is no small thing) by the sheer force of its concept – a concept steeped in the highly visual nature of twenty-first century life.

Jane Rosenberg

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