Los Angeles Opera 2018-19 Review: The Magic Flute

Barrie Kosky & Suzanne Andrade’s Production Remains a Spellbinding Experience

By Gordon Williams
(Photo: Cory Weaver)

Having already seen Los Angeles Opera’s 2013 co-production with Berlin’s Komische Oper and live-animation company 1927 of “The Magic Flute,” it was impossible not to  look forward to its return this season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night, November 16th. It was not disappointing in the least, but ultimately a very different experience.

Much of Saturday night’s pre-performance discussion focused on the many meanings that can be attributed to this “accessible fairy tale which is conceivably “a final moral statement from Mozart.

Director Barrie Kosky says in the program booklet interview that “Any attempt to interpret the piece in only one way is bound to fail” and James Conlon, in his program essay, suggests numerous aspects by which to consider this work – a communication to Mozart’s Freemason friends, a break away from Italian tradition, an attempt at popular theater, etc. Conlon does make the point, though, that the story of Tamino and Papageno’s wisdom-encouraging trials of endurance stands firmly within Enlightenment concepts such as “Reason, Virtue, Sympathy and Clarity.”

Silent Picture

But this production reconceptualizes “The Magic Flute” almost as a German silent film. The dialogue of the original librettist Immanuel Schikaneder has been reduced and transformed into silent film intertitles accompanied by Mozart’s fantasias K.475 and K.397. Mozart as a Silent Film pianist. Those fantasia selections were beautifully played on a fortepiano by Peter Walsh.

The live performers are surrounded by a plethora of images illustrating the course of their various emotional journeys. There is a wonderful, natural humor in these imaginative visuals: Mme Klatsch, one of the Three Ladies (played by Erica Petrocelli, Vivien Shotwell, and Taylor Raven), pops hearts floating out of the other two; Tamino and Papageno, during their joint trials, are injected with “Tugend” (virtue) and “Weisheit” (wisdom) from giant plungers. But there is a consistency of look that marries the opera’s heterogenous elements.

The closer you sit, the more details you will pick out. You can see the tricks – characters walking on stage through revolving doors, preparing themselves for when the spotlight would come on and the animation around them would start. A loss? No. You can notice far more emotional warmth that the music added.

In his program essay, Conlon spoke beautifully about Mozart’s emphasis on love in this work and, most movingly, quoted Kant – “The highest moral good cannot be achieved merely by the exertions of the single individual towards his own moral perfection, but requires a union of such individuals into a whole towards the same goal.”

That explains the dual couples – Tamino and Pamina, the relatively shallower and therefore comical Papagena and Papageno (who doesn’t do well in the various trials), the community around the High Priest, Sarastro, who turns out to be the good guy, despite the First Act character-assassination of the Queen of the Night, played with convincing histrionics by So Young Park on Saturday night. But one couldn’t help thinking about “emphasis on love” right from the start in Conlon’s encouragement of the lingering bassoon tones in the overture. If there was one word to use to characterize his musical interpretation, it would be “ardor.”

Ardor & Humor

This is what Zuzana Marková and Bogdan Volkov added as Pamina and Tamino, respectively. Both Volkov’s aria “Dies bildnis” and Marková’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” were stop-and-listen-to-it moments. During “Sieh’, Tamino, diese Tränen”? Marková’s slight push on “sieh’” was so touching, as she urged Tamino to see her tears now that she thinks their love has been lost.

Apart from these two famous arias, the other musical moment that attracted applause was the Male Chorus’s reprise of “O Isis und Osiris.” It was certainly terrific, and that moment of rising chromatic harmonies on “His mind is bold; his heart is pure” was gripping as the men facing Stage Right turned, as a group, toward the audience.

In many ways, this was a production in which the stage picture was funnier than anyone’s performance. The sight of a huge dragon’s head rising up sinisterly over a scurrying Tamino at the very opening drew genuine laughs. But acting – apart from musical acting – was very often a technical exactitude in aligning with the visuals: two chorus-members cross the stage holding their hands out in front of them; the animation reveals that they’re walking dogs.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, however, provided the necessary gravitas as Sarastro and Theo Hoffman was an endearing Papageno.

And the singers projected their performances though often rooted to the spot. So Young Park’s Queen of the Night was astounding. Watching “the movie” it appeared she had freedom of gesture, but that was the spider-animation projected onto her wrapping. The Queen of the Night as a giant spider was a great visual association!

Purists may balk at the idea of a “Magic Flute” in which intertitles fillet Schikaneder’s libretto and are accompanied by other music of Mozart’s. In his program comments Kosky refers to the audience as “viewers.” But then he goes on to say that this production makes it possible for those very viewers to experience the show in various ways. He lists a number of them, including “magical, living storybook”. One would hope that many, many more people get to experience this magical storybook, and that this production, which was conceived seven years ago, can continue to travel the world proving how delightful opera can be for another 10.


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