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Re-Introducing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Propagandist, In a New Rendering of an Old Classic

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The Magic Flute Opera Review

The current version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute being presented by LA Opera raises two essential artistic questions (plus, perhaps, eyebrows). Pouring vintage works into new bottles can be problematic, and in this reviewer’s opinion, more often than not they are NOT successful. This year I saw three modern dress Greek tragedies and, sans togas, only the Getty Villa’s Prometheus Bound worked. Resetting the other two myths in modern times served solely to detract from the original intents of the creators, and did absolutely nothing to enhance the banal productions.

On the other hand, every once in a while, a Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and company come along, updating Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,whipping up a whole new, relevant concoction called West Side Story. It was a stroke of genius to replace Juliet’s balcony with a Manhattan fire escape. So I’m happy to say that the British “1927” theatre company and Komische Oper Berlin rendition of Mozart’s 1791 Flute -- the planet’s most produced German-language opera -- falls into this latter category of reconfigured and re-jiggered classics.

1927 takes its name from the year the talkies emerged, displacing silent cinema. The company’s artistic conceit is to draw upon the conventions and aesthetics of silent films in order to express the fairy tale by Mozart and librettist Schikaneder. As such, we have some Hollywood studio slapstick and German expressionist elements, with references from Clara Bow’s “It Girl” to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse.

To be specific, the character Monostatos (Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel), who is identified (perhaps in a racist way?) as a “Moor” (which, BTW, later became Karl Marx’s nickname) and chief of the slaves of the temple, is straight out of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 creepy forerunner to Dracula. Pamina (Illinois-born lyric soprano Janai Brugger) is suggestive of those Jazz Age sexually liberated 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 -- one half expects her to burst out dancing the Charleston. Papageno (Muscovite baritone Rodion Pogossov) is dressed like none other than that king of silent comedians, Buster Keaton (BTW, French Stewart is reviving the stellar bioplay Stoneface in June 2014 at the Pasadena Playhouse).

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 appear (strapped in harnesses, as they are 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 perfection of works by Disney or Pixar.

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Mozart’s fable is about love, but the storyline leads to the other thought provoking aspect of this Flute. During James Conlon’s pre-performance lecture on opening night, the conductor said Mozart was a member of the Free Masons and this opera -- his last -- was redolent with the ideals of the Age of Reason and the French Revolution. Indeed, like Voltaire’s Candide (about whom the aforementioned Mssr. Bernstein had a thing or two to say musically), much of Flute revolves about the quest for Enlightenment. And Papageno is reminiscent of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage,” of man born free in a state of nature. (Some of the sexist lyrics caused the aud at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to laugh out loud, but in his talk Conlon stated that Mozart was a fierce believer in the equality of women, and that those lines expressed the beliefs of the characters -- not necessarily of their creator.)

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The Free Masons have alternately been viewed as a fraternal organization and as a secret society with surreptitious handshakes and a network of shadowy Masonic lodges, linked to conspiratorial plots to establish a “New World Order.” Some of America’s founders, such as George Washington, are believed to have been Masons -- but a detailed discussion of freemasonry is beyond the scope of this review.

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However, it bears stating that the opera’s enigmatic Sarastro (Kentucky bass Evan Boyer) 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 rapturous, 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 withthe ultimate of aesthetic expressiveness. (Indeed, in this production Hungarian soprano Erika Miklosa is sonorous as a spider-like queen, reaching the heights of operatic sublimity.)

Mozart realized he wasn’t writing a leaflet or composing Old Charges (sort of 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 (Ohio-born tenor Larence Brownlee) enchanted flute and Papgeno’s charmed glockenspiel. (However, since we just observed the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, redolent with those endless assassination conspiracies, I can’t help but ponder whether Mozart’s politics played a role in his untimely death at the age of 36, only three months after Flute premiered? Inquiring minds want to know, dammit!)

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 administrator) of the Komische Oper Berlin. Viewer/listener beware: One misses it at his or her own peril, and an extra performance has been added. In our violent world, Mozart’s opera persuasively argues in favor of less Glocks -- and more glockenspiels. This rapturously imaginative Magic Flute is nothing less than -- well -- magical.

ed rampell

The Magic Flute is being performed Nov. 30, Dec. 5 and Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m.; on Dec. 8 and Dec. 15 at 2:00 p.m.; and on Dec. 13 at 8:30 p.m. by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Ed Rampell

"The Hawaii Movie and Television Book" isthe new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell. See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.