Set in the silent movie era, The Magic Flute delivers pluses and minuses in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Eun Sun Kim (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 30.5.2024. (HS)

Lauri Vasar (Papageno) made mute by the Ladies removing his lips and teeth © Corey Weaver/SFO

The silent-movie Magic Flute finally found its way to San Francisco. Debuted in 2012 by Komische Opera Berlin, Barrie Kosky’s production transplants the British theatre company 1927’s fascination with combining live actors and silent movie-esque projections. More than three dozen opera companies around the world have mounted it – three times in Los Angeles, most recently in 2019.

One could see why that would be so in the opening scene on Thursday – the first of nine performances at San Francisco Opera through 30 June. Against a background of receding forest projected on a blank wall and an animated fire-breathing dragon swooping at dizzying angles, we see Tamino running frantically (his legs also projected). You can’t do that on a three-dimensional stage with a prosthetic beast and a tenor.

Alas, this also capsulizes the delights and disappointments in the production.

Animation does make it easy to portray the magical effects that are hard to do on a normal stage. When the Three Ladies silence Papageno for lying, instead of padlocking his mouth they remove a cartoon version of his lips and teeth, which float around him and multiply as he tries to speak. When Tamino tries out his magic flute, lines of musical notes waft over him, animals dissolve into constellations in the sky, and an animated Tinkerbell-like fairy follows him. Papageno has a projected black-cat companion, which he occasionally pets.

Anna Simińska (Queen of the Night) has Amitai Pati (Tamino) in her web © Corey Weaver/SFO

It is not all so benign. Monostatos, Sarastro’s evil slave, has a pack of snarling black dogs that chase Pamina. The Queen of the Night sprouts razor-sharp spider legs that span the stage, and tortures Pamina with a swarm of tiny spiders. Elements of Weimar Germany add lugubrious images, including but not limited to cabaret (Pamina’s fairy is drawn naked and many of the fanciful legs sport garter belts) and Expressionist film (futuristic mechanical elements from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis abound in the ritual trials).

All this is eye-catching and fascinating, but it comes at a cost, mostly by restraining the singers – literally, when they stand or sit on tiny balconies (harnessed for safety) so they can interact with the projected animation. I sensed a lack of freedom in their singing. When soprano Christina Gansch was able to move around the stage, her voice bloomed and the character’s personality emerged much more than when she was tied to the screen. Strapped to the wall in every scene, bass Kwangchul Youn brought little personality to his Sarastro.

The production also does away with the spoken lines, using silent movie intertitles to convey key plot points. These are imaginative, often wrapping around the singers. Unfortunately, that also erased some of the nuances contained in those mini-scenes, despite the use of excerpts from Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor and Fantasia in D minor, played nicely on fortepiano by Bryndon Hassman to emulate the silent movie tradition of accompanying scenes and intertitles with random music. It is still Mozart and connects with the mood, but it’s not The Magic Flute.

Setting the story in the 1920s is also fine with me: it is a fairy tale, after all, and this allows for some juicy costumes. Pamina sports a bob hairstyle and a Louise Brooks look to emphasize her allure. Papageno eschews a bird costume in favor of a yellow suit and a straw hat to emulate Buster Keaton. Tamino’s tux and slicked-back hair suggest a matinee idol.

Dressing up the men of Sarastro’s domain in stovepipe hats and Abraham Lincoln beards makes no sense, though. When they huddle around Pamina, it is just plain creepy. We meet the Queen of the Night as a giant spider. But if she is already scary, how does she gain our sympathy? And why does Tamino suddenly decide he loves Pamina, and risk his life for her?

The production’s constrictions – not just being tied into place but having to connect actions to the projected animation in time and place – may explain why I found myself ambivalent about the musical performance. On the plus side, Eun Sun Kim conducted with vibrance and elegance, favoring lively tempos yet allowing space for the orchestra’s music to breathe. In the cast, Gansch, who triumphed recently here as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, seemed to gain suppleness and expressiveness when she moved around, lavishing creamy textures and precision on Pamina’s music, especially in Act II.

Estonian baritone Lauri Vasar, making his company debut, shambled effectively in Papageno’s Keaton guise. Given more opportunity to move about, he got plenty of personality into his singing. New Zealand tenor Amitai Pati, a regular in the company’s casts since his Adler Fellow days in 2018, delivered Tamino’s music with fluidity and resonant tone.

Pinned to the wall and weirdly masked, Polish soprano Anna Simińska as the Queen of the Night hit all the high-flying notes in her two arias but, unable to move, she missed their emotional impact. Youn, also making his company debut, shaped Sarastro’s music with nobility and lovely legato, even if his low notes faded in volume.

The queen’s minions, trios who guide Tamino on his quest, acquitted themselves well, especially the three boy trebles, led by the ringing voice of Niko Min. The Ladies, led by current Adler Fellow soprano Olivia Smith, managed to convey their emotions even though dressed up as middle-aged yentas. Clever animation helped, including floating hearts emanating from them to Tamino (actual hearts not valentines).

Current and former Adler singers showed well in shorter roles, including tenor Zhengyi Bai as a fully masked Monostatos and soprano Arianna Rodriguez as a dance hall Papagena.

For first-time operagoers, all this eye candy might be a draw. My cousin, with me here for her first in-person opera, had a grand time, although she admitted the staging distracted her enough that she had trouble following the story, even though she had read the synopsis diligently beforehand. Knowing the story allowed me to laugh out loud when Papageno sings about his wish to find a wife and animated flowers pop up all over the screen, complete with birds and bees. I only wish the music could have emerged more completely.

Harvey Steiman

Co-directors – Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade
Revival director – Tobias Ribitzki
Sets and Costumes – Esther Bialas
Animation – Paul Barritt
Fight director – Dave Maier
Chorus director – John Keene

Tamino – Amitai Pati
Pamina – Christina Gansch
Papageno – Lauri Vasar
Sarastro – Kwangchul Youn
Queen of the Night – Anna Simińska
First Lady – Olivia Smith
Second Lady – Ashley Dixon
Third Lady – Maire Therese Carmack
Monostatos – Zhengyi Bai
Papagena – Arianna Rodriguez
Speaker – Jongwon Han
Three Spirits – Niko Min, Solah Malik, Jacob Rainbow
First Armored Man – Thomas Kinch
Second Armored Man – James McCarthy

5 thoughts on “Set in the silent movie era, <i>The Magic Flute</i> delivers pluses and minuses in San Francisco”

  1. I just came back from The Magic Flute at SF Opera. It was very disappointing. The stage became smaller and just a two dimensional movie screen. The principal singers looked like they are trapped inside the movie screen… (Remember Mike Teavee of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

    The worst part of all was that Queen of the Night was nothing but her head … rest of her body was hidden behind a screen and was covered by a huge cartoon spider …sigh…

    • Agree 100%. So disappointing. We actually left early we were so disillusioned. We have seen a previous production of The Magic Flute and loved it. The music is timeless. What a tragedy to limit the cast and principal singers in this way.

  2. I found Mozart’s masterpiece greatly diminished by this production. The heart and soul of the music had vanished. The performers were wooden. My friend commented this was more like a chorale with accompanying screen animation. The animations were clever but they competed with the singers and even with the music itself. In the current effort to refresh opera productions, things have gone overboard in my opinion. I hope there will be a backlash and a return to more traditional fare.

  3. I got so nauseated watching this animation on the screen too big and too high for animation (nobody wants animation if they are seeing live performance). Should I mention that there were live opera singers, who could not move due to demands of the set. The music (orchestra) and the singing were actually good, but overall, it was a disaster. This was my first and last visit to SF opera, such a waste of money and time. To make myself feel better I watched Amadeus on Netflix for the 5th time.

  4. I saw this production in Helsinki and really enjoyed it. As did the many young people in the audience. An incredibly original approach.


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