THE MAGIC FLUTE OPERA REVIEW
In 1927 The Jazz Singer - the first feature length movie with a synchronized soundtrack - was released. The musical had a memorable spoken line when Al Jolson quipped: “Wait a minute, wait a minute I tell yer, you ain’t heard nothing yet.” Given the ensuing deluge of dialogue since talkies displaced silent films, truer words have rarely ever been spoken onscreen.
But “Jolie” couldn’t foresee that around 80 years later a theater company specializing in “merg[ing] animation and live performance” would name itself after that fateful year in cinematic history in the U.K. And in 2012, according to the company’s website, “1927 collaborated with Komische Opera Berlin, to conceive and create a reimagining of The Magic Flute” that combines not only animation but a silent cinema aesthetic with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music. The mind blowing result can now be seen onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion LA Opera.
The artistic conceit is to draw upon the artistic, visual conventions of the silent screen in order to express this epic fairy tale about good and evil by Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder.
1927’s artistic conceit is to draw upon the artistic, visual conventions of the silent screen in order to express this epic fairy tale about good and evil by Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. As such, there are Hollywood studio slapstick and German expressionist elements, with references from Clara Bow’s “It Girl” to 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Fritz Lang’s 1922 Dr. Mabuse and beyond.
To be specific, the character Monostatos (Virginia tenor Frederick Ballentine) looks like the vampire of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 creepy forerunner to Dracula. Pamina (Czech soprano Zuzana Markova) is suggestive of Jazz Age flappers, such as Louise Brooks, the American-born actress who starred in G.W. Pabst’s 1920s German films, such as the daring Pandora’s Box. Papageno (New York baritone Theo Hoffman) is dressed like none other than that king of silent comedians, Buster Keaton, the Great Stone Face. (BTW, some characters appear in whiteface and I couldn’t help but wonder if some day they’d have to profess mea cupas for maligning Caucasians - or mimes?)
In addition to the innate artistry pertaining to and peculiar to silent movies, the 1927/Komische Oper Berlin production uses lots of 1927’s Paul Barritt-designed animation, which is the format the non-live action imagery is actually projected in, onto the wall Esther Bialas (who is also the costume designer) had constructed, in lieu of LA Opera’s usually lavish sets. This backdrop has elevated portals with sort of revolving doors out of which the various characters such as the “Three Ladies” appear (as this isn’t a Harold Lloyd movie, they’re strapped in harnesses for safety’s sake, as they are perched on high). The visuals are often witty and reminiscent of the type of animated images seen in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, Monty Python, Betty Boop Max Fleischer cartoons, and Dumbo - although they never attain the polished CGI perfection offered nowadays by Disney or Pixar, which is, of course, in keeping with the silent screen aesthetics on display here.
Mozart’s fable lends itself well to the 1927 treatment. The maestro’s poetic parable is about love, but the storyline leads to another thought-provoking aspect of this Flute. During James Conlon’s pre-performance lecture on opening night back in 2013, the conductor (who hands his magical baton over to Grant Gershon Dec. 1-15 to conduct the current revival) said Mozart was a member of the Free Masons and this opera - Wolfgang’s last - was redolent with the ideals of the Age of Reason and the French Revolution. Indeed, like Voltaire’s Candide much of Flute revolves around the quest for Enlightenment. And the bird catcher Papageno is reminiscent of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage,” of man born free in a state of nature. (The opera has some archaic sexist lyrics, but in his pre-op talk Conlon stated that Mozart was a fierce believer in women’s equality, and that those lines expressed the beliefs of the characters - not necessarily of their creator.)
The Free Masons have alternately been viewed as a fraternal organization and as a shadowy secret society with surreptitious handshakes and a network of mysterious Masonic lodges, linked to conspiratorial plots to establish a “New World Order.” (This description sounds a bit like something stratight out of the impeachment hearings before the House Intelligence Committee!) Some of America’s founders, such as George Washington, are believed to have been Masons - but a detailed discussion of freemasonry is outside the scope of this review (although Trump is going to need that TV attorney Perry Mason soon to defend him).
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However, it bears stating that the opera’s enigmatic Sarastro (Italian bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) is the Castro of the piece. Is this High Priest of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis a totalitarian despot - or the enlightened leader of his realm?
The issue of art for art’s sake or artistry intended to change the world has long been an issue. There is that oft-quoted dictum of a Hollywood mogul, that if a filmmaker “wants to send a message use Western Union.” Propaganda is a word usually used pejoratively, but in Mozart’s case he creatively encodes his philosophy in beatific, luminous form. From the rousing overture to the Queen of the Night’s “magnificent soliloquy… the delivery of which demands great dramatic power and supreme vocal technique in handling the brilliant flurry of staccato in the high soprano register,” according to The Victor Book of Operas, Mozart conveys his world view with the ultimate of aesthetic expressiveness. (In this production South Korean soprano So Young Park is sonorous as a spider-like Queen of the Night, reaching the heights of operatic sublimity.)
Mozart realized he wasn’t writing a leaflet or composing Old Charges (sort of the Masonic founding texts), but rather creating a mass entertainment and work of high art. So he doesn’t beat you over the head with his point of view, like some 18th century Leni Riefenstahl. Mozart’s ideal that music conquers all is expressed through Tamino’s (Russian tenor Bogdan Volkov alternates in the role with Ohio tenor Joshua Wheeker, who plays the prince Dec. 12-15) enchanted flute and Papageno’s charmed glockenspiel.
This production is gloriously and very precisely, painstakingly co-directed by 1927’s Suzanne Andrade, an Englishwoman, and Australian Barrie Kosky, who is the Intendant (chief executive) of the Komische Oper Berlin, who first brought this version of Flute LA Opera’s way in 2013. The Magic Flute is the world’s most produced German-language opera, and 1927 company’s gloriously original rendition brings something totally new and amazing to this 228 year old gem. However, diehard operatic purists may eschew it, as some did a radical reinterpretation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with a Star Wars panache presented by LA Opera in 2010.
Albeit a highly non-traditional iteration of this mainstay of the operatic canon, the overall effect of the unique visuals plus Wolfgang’s immortal musical musings makes this a rapturous experience to behold. In our violent world, Mozart’s opera persuasively argues in favor of less Glocks - and more glockenspiels. It is an absolute treat perfect for the holiday season. This charmingly imaginative Magic Flute is nothing less than - well - sheer magic for the eyes, ears and soul.
The Magic Flute is being performed Saturday, Nov. 23 and Thursday Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m.; on Sundays Dec. 1 and Dec. 15 at 2:00 p.m. by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; https://www.laopera.org/performances/201920-season/the-magic-flute/. It is also being performed at Komische Opera Berlin through Feb. 22; at Teatro Real Madrid from Jan. 19-Feb. 24; and at Houston Grand Opera April 24-May 8. For more info about 1927 see: https://www.19-27.co.uk/.
“The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/