BWW Review: DIE ZAUBERFLOTE (THE MAGIC FLUTE) is a FEAST FOR THE EYES AND EARS at The Aronoff Center
I will admit that I have not been an avid opera-goer in the past, but something was drawing me to Cincinnati Opera's upcoming production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's, The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote). I had heard whispers of the success of past productions in Minneapolis and Los Angeles and had high hopes for it-I was not disappointed! The concept, a collaboration between Komische Oper Berlin and London-based performance group 1927, (Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt), was utterly unique, and Cincinnati Opera's production values were top notch.
You may not get that impression when then curtain initially rises because the set, borrowed from the Minneapolis production, is simply a stark white wall and an empty stage, with no tromp l'oeil paintings or elaborate set pieces. However, within seconds, the wall is transformed into a lush forest, the trees spinning past giving the impression that the lone actor on stage is running very quickly. You laugh as you notice that the actor's bottom half is also a projection of running legs. The actor is pumping his arms comically and breathing exaggeratedly. Suddenly a giant, red, cartoon serpent slithers up behind him and is about to capture him in its venomous, gaping maw! The fun begins immediately and continues through the entire 2 hours and 40 minutes.
It's clear that the concept borrows heavily from old silent movies and animation of the 1920s. For example, dialogue that was meant to be spoken between Mozart's arias, was projected silent film style as the performers mimed the actions and emotions. The character Papageno was a dead-ringer for Buster Keaton, and a Nosferatu look-alike makes a fun appearance as a villain. The show was visually sumptuous from beginning to end. Barritt's animations were present in every scene, running the gamut of inspiration, and sometimes appearing to be almost three-dimensional, drawing me in and filling my imagination. And as each animated "set" disappeared, it would trick me into wondering how the crew switched sets so fluidly and immediately, until I remembered, "oh yeah! It's a projection!" The gimmick never got old. There were just so many charming moments, clever details, and interesting interpretations. All of that was combined with Mozart's glorious music skillfully conducted by Christopher Allen.
The Magic Flute was the perfect choice of an opera to interpret in this way. The libretto was written by a member of a theatrical troupe in 1790. It was heavily based on medieval romance and fairytales, much like the troupe's other works at the time. Mozart just happened to be friends with one of the troupe members (the original Tamino) and offered his services as composer, and it premiered in 1791 just before Mozart's untimely death. The troupe was known for being collaborative, playful, and imaginative, and their creation is definitely unique in plot and structure. Kosky's and 1927's concept never overshadowed or overwhelmed Mozart's opera, but actually complimented its quirky plot beautifully.
The animation was the source of many laughs and pleasant surprises, giving the producers and the director opportunity to reflect their vision of the piece through the staging. Daniel Ellis' direction (he also directed this show at Komisch Oper Berlin) was excellent. The pacing and humor of the piece were perfect, the story was crystal clear, and the concept allowed him to draw out (no pun intended) moments that may have been missed in a more traditional version. He benefitted from performers who were magnificent movers, able to interact with the projections with grace and precision. Some characters had "bodies" that were entirely animated, challenging the performers to sing passionate arias while remaining completely still, only their faces showing.
The singing was marvelous, especially Jeni Houser as the Queen of the Night, who elicited audible gasps from the audience as she impressively hit the oh-so-rare high F in both of her arias. Kim-Lillian Strebel had a voice so pure and clear that it perfectly suited her brave and endearing journey as Pamina.
I'd recommend this production to anyone who might have the impression that Opera is stuffy or difficult to understand. One audience member, a perennial Cincinnati Opera season ticket holder, mentioned to my wife that the crowd at the show that night was made up of several new faces. A young man was overheard in the lobby saying it was the best opera he has ever seen. If the Cincinnati Opera is looking to woo that reluctant Millennial crowd, this is a good choice. There is certainly a buzz about this show, and it's a pity that it's not sticking around for very long! You only have three more chances to see it.
The Magic Flute JULY 15, 20 & 22 | 7:30 P.M.
JULY 23 | 3:00 P.M.
ARONOFF CENTER | PROCTER & GAMBLE HALL
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
Sung in German with projectEd English translations
Performance length: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission
Call (513) 241-2742 for tickets or visit: http://www.cincinnatiopera.org/magic-flute/ for more information.