Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Die Fantastik Silver Screen Flöte

Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte)
Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O17
Academy of Music
September 22, 2017

Wolfie goes to the movies.
Photo credit: Robert Millard
Lui: What if Pamina were a Louise Brooks silent film star, Tamino her dashing tuxedoed beau, and Papageno reincarnated as Buster Keaton with a mean whistle? The Queen of the Night a giant spider, her ladies three pouting flapper witches! Monostatos a dead ringer for Nosferatu and Sarastro something like the man behind the curtain from the Wizard of Oz...

The Queen of the Night as a giant knife throwing spider
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Lei: With these reimagined characters, 1927’s fantastic production comes to the Opera Philadelphia Festival O17. We had seen videos of it but the live performance surpassed every expectation – a pure delight from start to finish that managed to jazz up Die Zauberflöte with an exciting design and concept. After all, this is the perfect opera to go crazy with. Considering the imaginary world it already conjures, the sky is really the limit! Paul Barritt’s animations enlivened the whole thing and were always tons of fun, all while matching the musical rhythms and illustrating the key plot points in energetic and spellbinding ways.

Tamino flees the dragon with the help of projected legerdemain
Photo credit: Craig Matthew
Lui: The set was literally a vertical blank canvas, a white wall for the uber-imaginative projections, with singers positioned all over, from stage level to mid air, thanks to a few little revolving platforms, so that often the characters just happened to materialize out of thin air.  

For the most part, the scenes conjured by the creative team were unpredictable and dynamic, all while (sort of) keeping the overarching contrast between the magical mysterious world of the Queen of the Night (dragons, enchantments, dangerous creatures) and the rational more “civilized” universe of Sarastro (populated by men in top hats and intricate mechanized creatures).

Monostatos sicks his dogs on the captive Pamina
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia 
Lei: No words can do justice to the sheer pleasure of this production. It must be seen to be appreciated. However, among the most memorable moments I would include: the opening scene of Tamino hyper-kinetically running away from a charging dragon; Pamina and Papageno making their escape by jumping from one rooftop to the next in their flight from Monostatos; the magic bells that transform threatening wolves into can-can dancing fools by conking them on their heads; Papageno flying around with Walt Disney’s Dumbo-inspired pink elephants after drinking several big pink cocktails; the use of deep sea scenes for the water trial and of a fire monster during the trial of fire (a monster who is then turned into a big puppy by the power of music) and so on. The highlights just don’t stop.

The terrifying guard wolves become dancing can-can girls
Photo credit: Minnesota Opera
Lui: The production did a terrific job of pacing the projections with the music, including during the most lyrical and contemplative love arias when time stops. In Act I, when Tamino pours his heart out for his beloved, he is alone in alone in a corner, with smoky lines of female figures slowly and sinuously tracing themselves out against the background as he sings. And when it is Pamina’s turn for her big longing aria in Act II, she is also alone encapsulated in a snow globe, as if to symbolize the lonely winter of her heart when she feels abandoned by her beau.

Pink elephants feed Papageno massive pink cocktails
Photo credit: Iko Freese
Lei: Some animations completely reinvented elements of the opera: the “magic flute” is turned into a little flapper fairy in the nude who produces flowy bars of music whenever she flies around. The silver bells given to Papageno are a troop of headless doll-like chorus girls who jump around in formation anytime they are unleashed. Nutty. But often also so very funny. In a way the power of those two special musical instruments is symbolized by sassy female energy – why not?!

Papageno and Papagena are fruitful and multiply
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Lui: But, some projections also closely traced the libretto, as when in the famous Papageno/Papagena duet an animation of a dollhouse appears in the background and, as they start to sing about mating and breeding a bunch of kleinen Papagenos and Papagenas, the house begins to sprout children in every room until it is crawling with little ones in a veritable army of a happy family.

The magic flute is now a little naked fairy who emanates musical notation
Photo credit: Komische Oper Berline
Lei: The singers weren’t entirely up to the task but the performances were nevertheless electrifying and fast paced. One common plague of The Magic Flute are the German singspiel passages that often come off so flat and empty in a standard production and usually feel like unnecessarily long-winded bits that just drag endlessly on and on.

The silent film intertitles enliven the singspiel doldrums
Photo credit: Craig Matthew
The 1927 production team solved for this issue with the genius idea of drastically reducing the spoken bits of dialogue and replacing them with silent film-style intertitles. The content of those obnoxious singspiel narrative interstices was boiled down to a minimum amount of text projected, in the form of very creative text art, directly onto the big screen wall and were accompanied by additional pieces of Mozart piano music.

Trial by fire!
Photo credit: Robert Millard
Lui: During these interludes, the singers were mugging in true silent-movie style with hilarious results. Also, hearing snippets from Wolfie’s fantasias for piano reutilized, as a silent film soundtrack, was thrilling. This approach also worked great in this new context, felt filmic and added another dramatic layer to the drama.

Lei: The Magic Flute has never been so much fun! I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, wondering what they would come up with next, often finding myself laughing in exhilarated wonder, blown away by the clever inventiveness of the production team. Refreshing and reinventing the canon? Yes, please!

– Lui & Lei

Things also get surreal
Photo credit: Craig Matthew
The three pouting flappers of the Queen of the Night
Photo credit: Craig Matthew 
It's good versus evil and that's not always so clear cut
Photo credit: Robert Millard

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