Last night’s production of The Magic Flute from Komische Oper Berlin was a triumph for the 2019 Auckland Arts Festival. It was opera re-invented in astonishing visuals, as scene after scene unfolded with a flair that was breath-taking.
The piece itself has problems a-plenty (plot spoiler….) - not much of a humanly-possible plot, references to an outmoded masonic order and the sheer clunky impracticality of having to create God and demons on stage. It is a love story mixing fantasy, surrealism, and magic. It’s held together with a story of Tamino and Pamina undergoing a trial of fire, water and the manipulation of an evil mother to find love.
The opera was a culmination of work between Amadeus Mozart and Emanual Shikaneder, a mason and impresario of a theatrical troupe. It was written as a comic piece, a Singspiele (“sing-play”) with dialogue in between sung arias, duets and ensembles. Komische Oper successfully updated (via the silent movie form) with dialogue projected on a screen above the characters, kindly translated into English. This design concept comes from the brilliant work of Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt and their company called 1927 which draws on many cultural heritages including the world of silent moves, vaudeville and animated film. The character of Papageno became Buster Keaton, the warped Monostatos was a bit Nosferatu and Pamina was the 1920s heroine with the bee-stung lips.
This wasn’t only a stroke of genius in design terms but projecting visuals of the dialogue helped the dramatic flow and created some brilliant comic turns. Mark McNeill on fortepiano performed the role of the silent film ‘organist’, accompanying these silent film excerpts with humour and pacing. And some light-hearted playing from the endlessly versatile Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under conductor Hendrik Vestmann added to a swift flowing evening.
Setting in animation frees up the operatic staging into an infinity of possibilities. This is especially effective for such a fantasy opera. The characters fly through starry skies, descend into the depths of Dante’s Inferno, assume huge form and dissolve into dancing musical notation. The Queen of the Night becomes the Mother Spider, with spiked legs trapping her victims - the nightmarish manipulation of her daughter assumes maximum impact through animation. The male chorus of black devils are magicked by Papageno’s chime box and become satyrs with the legs of a chorus line of ladies in suspenders and red stiletto. Microfiche-like images of architectural plans become doorways in Tamino’s second aria Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton.
And in the most charming reinvention, when Papageno wishes for a simple life of wine and women, he gets served with a giant pink cocktail and rides off on the back of a pink elephant. Psychedelia is alive and well in opera. Of course.
So does this astonishing visual re-invention serve the opera? Call me old-fashioned but for me, opera is about the voices and dramatic interpretation between singer-actor and the pit. Last night we had one of the best Queen of the Night arias I’ve heard from Aleksandra Olczyk. And it’s an aria that’s served well by maintaining a powerful single pose on stage. And some beautiful lyric singing from Kim-Lilian Strebel’s Pamina. Also excellent characterisation from Bartlomiej Misiuda’s Papageno and great diction and bite from Emil Ławecki’s Monostatos.
But perhaps we lost some relationship with the characters and some nuance because the singers’ moves on stage were so strictly plotted due to the extreme technical requirements of imagery and lighting. Perhaps it cost in terms of the warmth and spontaneity allowed for the performer. Opera is a human form, and although there was some interplay between animation and performer, it was basically stripped down to two-dimensions. Some of the human-ness and sheer accidental life that can magically turn up on stage simply wasn’t possible.
But that sounds peevish in the face of an astonishing production that brought opera into a wider artistic context. Komische Oper Berlin has blown open the possibilities for design on stage with this production. We have seen what a brilliant artistic team can create and this brings a new appreciation for this art form which conceivably is struggling in a modern digital world. The Auckland Arts Festival chose well by bringing such an extraordinary production to our City.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Michael Smith for all the images featured on this article.