Also see Arty's reviews of My Children! My Africa!, Stanley Ann: The Unlikely Story of Barack Obama's Mother, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, and Emilie/Eurydice
The Magic Flute is the tale of Prince Tamino, who, after being saved from a pursuing monster by the Three Ladies who serve the Queen of the Night, is charged by the Queen to rescue her fair daughter Pamina from the clutches of Sarastro. In exchange, she promises her hand in marriage to Tamino. Tamino accepts the task, with Papageno, a slothful bird-catcher, assigned to assist him. Tamino believes the Queen's account of Sarastro being a purveyor of evil, but upon arriving at Sarastro's realm, he gains a different impression, that Sarastro is the upholder of virtue and reason, and that it is the Queen who trades in wickedness. Tamino decides to take part in a series of trials devised by Sarastro, in order to gain entry to Sarastro's realm and earn Pamina's heart, with Papageno reluctantly joining him.
The story offers a moral of reconsidering good and evil, as Tamino discovers that one can be mistaken for the other, and plays out the conflict between passion and reason. It is also just great fun, with its array of magical characters, beasts and comic personages. This makes it wonderful fare for audiences of all ages.
That said, how does one create something new of so well-known a classic? A brilliant response to that question has been this production by 1927, a multidisciplinary London-based theater company, a dazzling blend of live theater, music and animation. Their Magic Flute, a dazzling blend of live theater, music and animation, premiered to acclaim in Berlin in 2012. In the United States it has been mounted only in Saint Paul and Los Angeles. Just last month, it toured in China.
For this production, the singer/actors appear in full costumes (beautiful work by Esther Bialas, with a keen sense of humor sewn in) in front of a screen on which the most vivid and imaginative animated film is projected, creating not only scenic backdrops, but monsters, fairies, fires, demonic monkeys that hop across the stage in soldierly lines, flowers that bloom until they engulf the entire scene, and so much more. The animation is not, though, a terrific show in itself, as the cast members interact with it. Sarastro is pulled across the stage by the huge gnarling dog at the end of a leash he seems to be holding, even though it is part of the animation. An animated pendulum, swinging, pushes Tamino and Pamina to and from one another, thwarting their desire to seal their love. Though the pendulum is just a film image, the two characters move back and forth in perfect synch. Animation allows actors who are standing still to appear to be helplessly falling, or frantically running forward. The entire production is not only a product of brilliant animation and art design, but of expert direction and precision timing.
In addition to standard entrances and exits from the wings, doors on the stage floor level swing open to allow characters to flash in and out of their scenes, appearing on cue within a cinematic setting. A series of doors halfway up the back wall also circle open to reveal characters perched on platforms above the stage, used to great effect by the Queen of the Night (perched on her platform, a set of animated giant spider legs descend down from her body to the ground to create an amazing image of creepiness), as well as for the three Attendants to the Queen, the comic and lustful bird-catcher Papageno, and more.
The Magic Flute was written as a singspiel, a blend of lengthy musical segments with spoken text. In this production the text appears part of the film projection, an homage to silent film. These are supersized and use varied fonts to embellish the tone of a particular scene. The vocals are sung in the original German with English translations projected in supertitles above the stage.
About those vocals: to my admittedly untrained ears, they are flawless. Jeni Houser, as The Queen of the Night, is exceptionally stunning, magnificent in her two dramatically composed arias, winning deserved cheers of "brava" from the audience. Julien Behr provides a heartfelt tenor to the virtuous and romantic hero Tamino. The heroine Pamina is sung by Christie Conover, her beautiful soprano expressing strength that surmounts her initial presentation as a traditional damsel in distress.
The comic bird-catcher Papageno is played by Andrew Wilkowske, his clear tenor enlivening this reluctant hero's preference for pursuing life's pleasures over fighting evil. Benjamin Sieverding brings his deeply expressive bass to the role of Sarastro, making his case for reason and virtue against the Queen of the Night's cruel irrationality. Tenor John Robert Lindsay brings out both the lecherous and pathetic qualities of the character Monostatos, guard of Sarastro's temple, who desires the imprisoned Pamina for himself.
The Three Ladies who attend to the Queen sing in fantastic supper-club harmony and stand in hilarious frozen poses that betray their self-serving nature. The roles are performed by sopranos Tricia Van Ee and Shannon Prickett, and mezzo-soprano Victoria Vargas. The lush performance of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra, led by Michael Christie's baton, provides a robust musical table setting on which this feast of performances are served.
The Magic Flute is one of Mozart's most beloved works, and is among the world's best known and most often performed operas. It premiered in Vienna in the fall of 1791, only ten weeks before Mozart's death. Its initial run of over 100 performances was astonishing in its day, and it has maintained constant prominence. As of last year, it was cited as fourth most frequently produced among all operas. It lends itself to re-interpretations and reinventions, using new technologies and evolving artistic styles to present its story, a flight of fancy with heavy matter at its core.
Minnesota Opera's production of The Magic Flute, by way of the 1927's fabulous concept, masterfully executed by animator Paul Barritt, bears witness to the versatility and durability of Mozart's great work. We can be fairly certain that the future will bring us other ways of presenting this opera, offering new treasures of their own. Right now, though, I wouldn't wait for a better Magic Flute to arrive. The show on stage at the Ordway is a masterwork, a sublime marriage of art and entertainment.
The Magic Flute plays through performances from November 22, 2015, a production of Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $200.00. For tickets visit MNOpera.org or call 612-333-6669.
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder; Stage Director: Tobias Ribitzki; Conductor: Michael Christie; Animation Designer: Paul Barritt; Concept: 1927 (Suzanne Anrade and Paul Barritt) and Barrie Kosky; Set and Costume Designer: Esther Bialas: Lighting Design Associate: Raymond W. Stevenson Jr.; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley; Children's Chorus Master: Dale Kruse; Assistant Director: David Ramadés Toro; Assistant Conductor: Jonathan Brandini: Repetiteurs: Jessica Hall and Lindsay Woodward; Production Stage Manager: Kerry Masek; English Captions: Floyd Anderson
Cast: Rob Asklof (Man in Armor), Julien Behr (Tamino), Christie Conover (Pamina), Ben Crickenberger (Man in Armor), Riley Eddins (A Spirit), Tricia Van Ee (First Lady), Tracey Engleman (Papagena), Jeni Houser (The Queen of the Night), Nykeigh Larson (A Spirit), John Robert Lindsey (Monostatos), Shannon Prickett (Second Lady), Benjamin Sieverding (Sarastro), Victoria Vargas (Third Lady), Andrew Wilkowske (Papageno), Fletcher Zavadil (A Spirit).