BWW Reviews: OTSL's MAGIC FLUTE Delights St. Louis
Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened its thirty-ninth season with a bang. Their production of The Magic Flute is unlike any other you've seen (or ever will see). On entering the theatre one finds--well, not much at all. And what there is is pretty dismal. A huge nearly-empty stage, the vast back wall a grim dark grayish brown like an old warehouse. High above, a steel cat-walk spans the stage, and there's a great moveable steel staircase to the catwalk. A rather cheesy fake palm tree. A bush. A small black table and chair. A little trolly for coffee. This is "The Magic Flute"?? I'd heard that designer/director Isaac Mizrahi was having some weird ideas about this show. But this??
Well, it was not long before my heart, which had sunk a little, flew right back up. This is a Hollywood sound stage and a lot of very theatrical magic is going to happen here--not least of all in the flood of beautiful dance that we soon will enjoy. There are many moments throughout the evening when one is aware of a certain visual excess, and occasionally things are more than a bit too busy, but overall Mr. Mizrahi's vision works very well indeed. And musically? Ah, musically conductor Jane Glover and her brilliant army of singers and musicians conquer sublime heights.
Mr. Mizrahi places his "Magic Flute" in early 'fifties Hollywood, and there are many obvious references to that place and time. Stage hands and grips (mostly wearing fedoras and suspenders) move things about. When the Queen of the Night first appears high on that catwalk she is the very essence of an aging Garbo--close turban, flowing dressing gown, dark glasses. Tamino's costume is a direct steal from Gene Kelly in "April in Paris" (1951). Papageno is--well, yes, his lower half is bird, but upwards he resembles nothing so much as W. C. Fields--portly, a little pompous and with that trademark straw boater. The tails of his coat are very long, but after all, he's part bird, so swallow-tails are appropriate. The three Spirits are babies in exactly the baby costumes used by Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan in "The Band Wagon" (1953).
Now this opera is a fantasy on Freemasonry, a movement which grew up fostered by the Enlightenment. It was, essentially, a humanist rejection of the old hierarchical authority and a commitment to human perfection through individual betterment. There was a fundamental optimism at its core. Tamino and Pamina through their courage and discipline are eventually accepted into Sarastro's noble brotherhood. When Mr. Mizrahi chose the early 'fifties he chose an era of vast optimism. And for his lodge of noble brothers he chose, of course, Shriners. The stage is flooded with countless Shriners, as at a convention--red sports-coats, gray slacks, saddle shoes and, of course, that iconic red Fez with the golden emblem. Shriners are a modern branch of Freemasonry, and they were massively present in America from the 'twenties through the 'fifties.
Today we are tempted to view Shriners (apart from their philanthropy) as rather silly--the funny hats, the parades of tiny cars. Today we are tempted to think of the libretto of "The Magic Flute" as rather silly. But I thank Isaac Mizrahi for placing this work in a time when such commitments were not so silly. And despite the levity in "The Magic Flute" such commitments were not silly to Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder--both Masons.
The Freemasons dreamt of a universal Enlightenment--a movement from the old darkness to the new light, from chaos to order. But there were those who feared and opposed such change. And here I think that we should invoke the memory not of "April in Paris," but of that Gene Kelly movie of the following year--"Singin' in the Rain" (1952). In it the reigning diva of silent film is faced with the terrifying prospect of a new age--"talkies"--just as the Queen of the Night dreads the sunlight of Sarastro. (Perhaps an even better analogy would be to "Sunset Boulevard"  in which Gloria Swanson, herself an aging silent film star [who not infrequently wore a turban] plays just that--a diva desperate for a comeback, but whose time has past.)
Of this brilliant cast, to me, Sean Panikkar as Tamino is especially impressive. His strong, clear, beautiful, easy voice and his perfect diction are a pleasure indeed. And he fills the prince with youthful ardor. Elizabeth Zharoff, as Pamina, is a lovely match for him with her sweet true soprano. Vocally she is a tiny bit less ingénue than one might ideally want, but hers is a beautiful performance.
Claire de Sévigné sings the Queen of the Night. Grand and glamorous she masters the role. Her vengeance aria is full of those amazing coloratura fireworks that dance among the scattered notes with laser-like precision. I'm always astonished (a) that Mozart could write such a thing expecting a human to really sing it, and (b) that any woman could actually do so. No other "drama queen" has ever had such a fearsome aria to sing in the entire history of opera. At one point the Queen's entrance is an utter marvel of costuming: she sweeps on from the down-left "vom" and up the stairs to the catwalk trailing an absolute ocean of star-sprinkled night-blue fabric in her train. Deftly managed by her entourage it covers the entire stage. It's a stunning image.
Matthew Anchel is a very strong Sarastro, and Matthew DiBattista is excellent as Monostatos. Now Monostatos was originally a Moor, "the same color as a black ghost." Here we see him blue--like an intern for Blue Man Group--and he's the smallest man on stage--more imp than ogre. I suppose nowadays we really should not be invited to shudder at a blackamoor (and presumably a Muslim) lusting after a fair princess, but with poor blue little Monostatos I felt much sympathy. He's too small to be a monster, and after all "it's not easy being blue." He really doesn't deserve those hundred lashes on his feet. (Maybe lashes with a wet noodle?)
There is a very strong and delightful element of dance throughout. Tamino and Pamina have dancing doubles--and either through casting or makeup the doubles are exact replicas of the principles. (Well Alexandra Parsons is a slightly miniaturized version of Miss Zharoff.) Beautifully done. Beyond these the stage is filled with dancing animals--birds, a cat, a donkey, a frog, a goofy pink ostrich. Elizabeth Coker was particularly impressive as a mechanical butterfly on a music box. Such brilliantly quick crisp precision--her feet are like a hummingbird's wings. The gods Isis and Osiris stand at the grand door of Sarastro's temple, and they are convincingly solid gold (Isis seems as nude and smooth as an Oscar statuette). Even their dance has the distinctive angularity of an Egyptian frieze. A couple of curly-tailed agile monkeys who look as though they had escaped from a Persian organ-grinder occasionally scamper through the scene. At times our attention is torn between the dancers and the singers (and perhaps the supertitles), but I wouldn't have cut anything.
The wit and humor and sheer invention pervading this production are so bright and fresh!
Thus it is an altogether delicious and surprising evening. As I say it leans toward visual excess occasionally--particularly in the glorious finale, which somehow revels in that florid overkill one associates with Mexican religious festivals. It drips with roses and other flowers. But Mozart calls for this. There is strong suggestion of the Rosicrucian degrees of Freemasonry. So all these flowers are not inappropriate.
Well anyway, it's a grand production of a sublime opera. And as for the symbolism? Is the Queen of the Night the Catholic Church? Or Maria Theresa? Or Lilith? Or just Superstition? Is Tamino Franz Josef? Try not to think about all that; just relax and listen to those voices!