The Magic Flute, a German opera by Mozart, first premiered in Vienna in 1791; Mozart himself conducted the orchestra that night.
In the more than 200 years since, the show has undoubtedly been produced in any number of ways, from the magical and lush to the spare and contemporary. Even so, the Lyric Opera’s current mounting of a production that first premiered nearly a decade ago is one of the most unique interpretations of opera—perhaps of any musical production—seen on stage in recent memory. The realization of a collaboration between director Barrie Kolsky and a performance group known simply as 1927, this version is something more akin to a film, even as actors belt out the famous arias sans amplification. The production realizes Mozart’s whimsical story of a young prince on a quest to find his princess without sets at all, instead projecting the scene’s details onto a blank screen, non-stop animation depicting the various forests, caverns and palaces where the story unfolds. It’s an intriguing approach, turning on its head nearly everything one expects of an opera, the elaborate stagings and jaw-dropping costumes of a grand production.
Directed now by Tobias Ribitzki and conducted by Karen Kamensek (both making their Lyric debuts), the show remains as dramatic as ever. The multilayered plot (this is opera, after all) begins with a prince named Tamino (Pavel Petrov) saved from a menacing serpent by three of the Queen’s ladies. When they leave to tell her about the young man, a clever birdcatcher named Papageno (Huw Montague Rendall) tells Tamino it was him who saved the prince. As a gift for his good deed, the Queen presents Tamino with a gift, a portrait of her daughter, Pamina (Ying Fang), who’s been captured by the evil Sarastro (Tareq Nazmi). Immediately in love with the young woman (as happens in opera), Tamino sets out to free Pamina from her scary fate, helped along the way by a magical flute the ladies gift him and a set of bells they gift Papageno.
From there, the opera unfolds as a dramatic will they or won’t they (they being Tamino and Pamina) end up happily ever after together, with some diversions into Papageno’s brand of comic relief and the menacing adventures of Monostatos (Brenton Ryan), a crony of Sarastro’s who also happens to be in love with Pamina. In between, Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night (Lila Duffy) delivers one of opera’s best known arias, “Der Hölle Rache,” with its iconic coloratura (the intricate and elaborate “bouncing” notes that embellish a phrase), and Sarastro plots to keep the lovers apart and Papageno pines to find a love like his friend Tomino’s.
The Magic Flute is typically produced with dialogue in between the musical numbers; here, the production removes all of that and instead projects the exposition and dialogue on screen like an interlude from a silent film. And that’s not by accident; the concept of this version of the show is deeply rooted in an early 20th-century aesthetic, from the simple costumes to animation that evokes a bit of the industrial revolution with a hint of steampunk. In fact, the original creative team acknowledges that they not only chose to shift the focus of the show to the charming Papageno, but that they sought to create a sort of homage to Buster Keaton through him, all physical comedy and sidelong glances to the audience. So it tracks that one of the show’s most delightful scenes is late in Act II when Papageno finally finds someone to settle down with, dreaming about the bustling house they’ll set up once they start their lives together (“Pa- Pa- Pa-“). It’s a romp and a half, with clever animations behind the actors creating a sense of joyful chaos that would be hard (perhaps impossible) to actually realize on stage.
In the end, what stands out most about this inventive interpretation of The Magic Flute is, perhaps as it should be, the voices. As the Queen of the Night, Duffy doesn’t have much more to do but sing; she’s up on a pedestal dressed all in white, her imposing spider arms nothing more than a projection onto the massive stage. The actors do well enough to perform with and around the projections, but Duffy’s performance is noteworthy in particular simply because it is so laser focused on her voice. In removing all the bells and whistles (and flutes?) of traditional opera productions, creators Kolsky and 1927 have actually ensured that was most important about the production gets its due: the music.
The Magic Flute is playing at the Lyric Opera through November 27. Learn more.
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