Friday, July 21, 2017

A new kind of magic for 'The Magic Flute' in Cincinnati Opera Summer Festival production

There is a world elsewhere in "Die Zauberflöte," and there always has been. It is not Coriolanus' world of bitter self-exile, but a bright place of earned happiness in which all the sorrows of worthy people are wiped away.

The opera, the last work of Wolfgang Mozart's to be staged in his lifetime, adapts readily to an emphasis on show and spectacle as it carries its ethical message to a triumphant conclusion.  Cincinnati Opera has done well to bring this particular world elsewhere to regional audiences through Sunday.

Many far-flung forces, both creative and technical, came together to create "The Magic Flute" (as it's best-known in Anglophone countries) in the form it's taking this weekend at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati. The production, which originated at the Komische Oper Berlin, has co-production credits from Los Angeles Opera (costumes) and Minnesota Opera (set construction).

The creative team was put together by Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the German company, with the live-performance-and-animation co-creators of 1927, a British firm specializing in film/stage projects.

Thursday night's performance showed immediately the advantage of removing Emanuel Schikaneder's imaginative Zauberoper libretto entirely from naturalism. We don't have to excuse the hero Tamino's collapse in fear at the attack of some lumbering monster cobbled out of cloth and wire in the scene shop. That's often the audience's first impression.

I don't want to belittle the craft of costume design, but in this show we have instead a truly scary image: a gargantuan cinematic devourer of everything in its path from the get-go. And though Tamino's frantic attempts to escape the monster have the comical overlay of the "undercranking" practiced by early movie cameramen to speed up natural movement, the first scene communicates genuine peril. We are prepared to accept Tamino as a romantic hero, a person capable of growth in moral stature under the right guidance. He is rescued by the haughty yet helpful Three Ladies, whose recurring appearances are always delightful, despite their service to the "wrong" side in this opera.

Throughout this production, the "world elsewhere" concocted by 1927 and the Komische Opera Berlin comes into its own as an arena for comedy, true love, and moral development. The luxuriant phantasmagoria still manages to support those themes. The evocation of silent film just alluded to is pervasive. There's the circular spotlighting that expands and contracts, used very effectively to direct our attention to Tamino, his much-beset girlfriend and ally Pamina, and other main characters, chiefly the prince's bird-catching companion Papageno. There are scenes when the live action is flecked with the flaws of early celluloid films, and — most crucial to the flow of the opera — the device of intertitles used to represent dialogue.

The encapsulated lovers, Pamina and Tamino, undergo trials supervised by Sarastro.
That particular adaptation of a silent-film convention avoids the chore of training non-German singers to speak German text naturally. It also allows for telegraphing emotions and verbal interaction, just as the silent films did. The result of abundant trimming is some loss of Schikaneder's wit and conversational give-and-take. The streamlining makes sense, but we lose a firm sense of the characters in dialogue, starting with the long getting-acquainted exchange of Tamino and Papageno. It means that we must shrug and accept the unlikely companionship of the high-minded prince and the birdcatcher's slightly goofy ordinariness without seeing what engenders it.

In any event, those two roles were well sung by Aaron Blake and Rodion Pogossov, respectively. Papageno has some physical comedy to convey in this show, and Pogossov does that admirably, especially late in the second act when he finally gets the girl of his dreams, Papagena, sung sassily by Jasmine Habersham.

What we first see in "The Magic Flute": Tamino attempts to outrun a pursuing monster.
Kim-Lillian Strebel is Pamina, a character modeled in appearance here after silent-film star Louise Brooks (as noted by Kosky in the program booklet). Her dark page-boy cut provides the model for all the women in the chorus, whom we see at length in the finale, where the formally dressed men (in other scenes top-hatted) join them in praise of Sarastro, high priest of Isis and Osiris and designer of the ritual trials through which Tamino and Pamina must pass, displaying the virtues of patience, wisdom, virtue, and strength (the German equivalents of which pop up on the screen several times).

Strebel displayed a soprano of high luster and sustained power in the second-act aria, "Ach, ich's fuhl's," which ennobled the hurt that Pamina feels at Tamino's mandated lack of responsiveness to her. Suddenly, we are aware of Pamina's worthiness to be Tamino's fully entitled companion in a set of trials that has tended to underline a male-only path to enlightenment. Since the opera finally gives the couple a blessing that partly contradicts the Masonic progress outlined, Strebel's strength in this one aria struck me as crucial to the production's success.

One of the great triumphs of what 1927 brought to Kosky's interpretation is the ability to fill the stage picture while positioning singers at different heights. This show literally gives another dimension to stage direction, which  almost always follows a horizontal plane. The Queen of the Night is often elevated somewhat, and Jeni Houser was here, but to especially spectacular effect, encased in a spider's body with eight huge twitching legs extending down to the floor. Her singing was rather  compromised acoustically as a result, but the evil queen's famous high notes rang out, and the vocal agility was intact.

I boggled at some of the imagery, barely resisting the temptation to slap symbolism onto everything I saw. I think sometimes animator Paul Barritt was just having fun. Some of the animal suggestions were at least totemic, I guess, such as the monkeys in the "trial" parade. But why does Papageno apparently catch only owls? Maybe that's the one kind of bird his patroness, the Queen of the Night, favors. Why are Pamina and Tamino, in a trio with Sarastro aloft, kept apart by the swinging pendulum of a large clock? I'm working on that, though I think I understand why the production designers didn't want literal, or even approximate, glockenspiel, pan pipes, and flute in view, despite repeated references to those magical or signature instruments.

The constant shimmer and shake of the show's movement rested upon visual styles that suggested both Victorian steampunk and Dr. Seuss. The danger in this novel kind of Gesamtkunstwerk is that what you see can overwhelm what you hear. The trials by fire and water were wonderfully realized. So was the eye-popping descent of Tarmino and the two Armored Men down a sort of mine shaft into the bowels of the earth.

But I was particularly disturbed by the large peeping, blinking eyes, visible as if through gashes in a black wall, during Sarastro's great aria "In diesen heil'gen Hallen." With effort I concentrated on how well Tom McNichols was singing it. As for the animated winged nymph  — nude, including a pubic patch — who at one point flits over the young lovers' heads, it suddenly became difficult to focus on the purity of their mutual devotion.

Cbristopher Allen conducted, and if I was after purity, I got plenty in a magnificent reading of the overture by the orchestra.
As for the rest, I admit I was transported — the production's clear intent. It presents indeed a world elsewhere, not a half-hearted or rote attempt to fashion one merely in the spirit of Mozart and Schikaneder. In the 21st century, there are other spirits to be served, after all. This production insists: Dream on!


[Photos by Philip Groshong]