Posted by: operatheaterink | November 25, 2013

Review: ‘The Magic Flute,’ Los Angeles Opera, Nov. 25, 2013

The Question Is: Was it ‘The Magic Flute’?

Rodion Pogossov as the bird-catcher Papageno

Rodion Pogossov as the bird-catcher Papageno.
Photo: Robert Millard


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

As an opera critic, I generally attempt to be objective about performances. I may not like something that someone else does. If that occurs when the music is well-performed and the production is executed well, then do I as a critic have the right to be critical? Maybe I only have the right to communicate my opinion as an opinion. So with Los Angeles Opera’s “Die Zauberflöte” — imported from the Komische Oper Berlin and conceived and directed by Barrie Kosky, Suzanne Andrade and animation designer Paul Barritt — I am simply voicing my opinion:

I hated it.

But aside from that, every element of the production was well-rehearsed and carried through to perfection. Yet the production upstaged the singers and Mozart; and the singers and Mozart were the only reason I stayed after intermission.

“The Magic Flute” is a story about the awakening of love between Pamina and Prince Tamino; and between Papageno and Papagena. The Queen of the Night sends Tamino to rescue her daughter from the evil priest, Sarastro. However Sarastro proves to be honorable and the Queen emerges as the villain. Tamino and Papageno — with flute and magic bells in hand — pass their trials, which makes them worthy of initiation into the temple. Tamino finds happiness with Pamina after they overcome their fears of fire and water, and Papageno and Papagena dream of a life of domestic tranquility with a home full of children.

Both Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were Freemasons. The opera is a fairy tale with Masonic symbolism — a moral allegory that characterizes human self-sacrifice as a means to achieve wisdom and nobility. These characteristics are usually brought to life in a magical setting that combines the spiritual world of temples and high priests with some slaves, beasts, and a Moor named Monostatos. The opera has always been a Singspiel — a mix of dialogue and song.

LA Opera’s 2009 production, which originated in 1993, was magical. Nathan Gunn’s performance as Papageno was glorious. I fell in love with his wide-eyed bird-catcher along with an alligator in tennis shoes and a long-legged ostrich in high heels.

But just as quickly as I fell in love with that production, I fell out of love with this new production from Berlin.

There I was in the audience being introduced to a group of silent film-era characters that did not even resemble the characters created by Mozart and Schikaneder for “Die Zauberflöte.” Pamina wasn’t sweet and lovely in her black Victorian gown; Tamino wasn’t a prince; Monostatos was Count Dracula; the Queen of the Night was a black spider; and Papageno was Buster Keaton. There were no true characterizations.

The spoken dialogue was projected on a screen. No set was needed since the performers were standing in front of a massive screen where animations were being projected — which kept us so busy watching them that we completely forgot to listen. Elephants, Valentine’s Day hearts, black cats, skeletons, black and white singers masked in white pasty makeup — it was like Halloween with Marcel Marceau. It was “The Jazz Singer” in reverse. The Three Ladies were costumed right out of the Weimar Republic. It was all one great big cartoon.

Even the music was altered. A pianist was playing Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor interspersed in the body of the opera score. It was like the score had been stolen to create a new opera. At least the music was composed by Mozart.

However . . . the staging was incredibly creative and imaginative if it had been utilized as a new opera. Every movement from every singer-actor was well-rehearsed and meticulous. The singing — when I was listening — was well-sung. Conductor James Conlon’s direction was specific, motivating, and rhythmically timed to perfection. I preferred to watch him in the pit rather than move my eyes upward toward the stage, but that is because I have always thought opera to be about the music. I could see an excitement when I watched his face, baton, and movements. He clearly loved the onstage antics and could match the music to the staging. He knew every note without glancing at the score and appeared to be in heaven. I have rarely, if ever, seen a conductor so engaged.

Still — I anticipated my exit during intermission with glee, but I remained in the hall to hear the singers instead.

Janai Brugger was vocally quite wonderful as Pamina. Her “Ach, ich fühl’s,” when Tamino wouldn’t speak to her, was sung so gloriously with such beauty that she made the whole evening worthwhile.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s aria “Dies bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” was sung with a lyrical focused ping and an elegant line that incited me to believe that he is destined to become a celebrated Tamino when he can display his true emotional colors both in voice and demeanor.

I kept trying to find the character of Papageno in Rodion Pogossov’s Buster Keaton. Pogossov would have made a wonderful silent-film actor, but his “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” did not remind me of the loveable feathered bird-catcher. And his final duet with Papagena left me wanting even though he followed every stage direction with precision.

Amanda Woodbury as Papagena sang her duet with a lovely sound. But the charm was all lost due to the costumes and staging, although it was somewhat of a joy to see the children projected behind her.

And even though Erika Miklósa as the Queen of the Night seemed to be an audience favorite, her costume and spider legs were a terrible distraction. When she sang “Der Hölle Rache” on a ledge above Pamina, we in the audience were looking at Pamina, which intruded on a moment that should have been focused on the Queen. Her coloratura vocal agility was impressive.

Evan Boyer’s Sarastro lacked the elegance of a Kurt Moll. Rodell Rosel is a wonderful character actor; however, he was unrecognizable as both Rodell Rosel and Monostatos. The Three Ladies portrayed their roles aptly. And the Three Boys were refreshing and eager.

So Bravo to the singers for their fine acting and singing. I applaud James Conlon and the LA Opera Orchestra. But I’m sorry to say that this “Magic Flute” simply didn’t work for me.

Libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder
Conductor: James Conlon
Production/Direction: Suzanne Andrade, Barrie Kosky, “1927”
Animation Designer/Concept: Paul Barritt
Production: Komische Oper Berlin
Set and Costume Designer: Esther Bialas
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon
Associate Director: Tobias Ribitzki
Assistant Director: Trevore Ross
Stage Manager: Lyla Forlani
Associate Conductor: Andreas Heinzmann

Critic’s Note: I believe that this production is an excellent one to draw in a new audience of people who are unfamiliar with the tried and true “Magic Flute.” But I believe that every composer creates his or her characters and images just as he or she wants the operas to be perceived. This imaginative concept would be better served in a new theatrical arena where comparisons cannot turn into obstacles. Some opera buffs no doubt also find the production appealing and unique. I just respect the composer and his original concept and intent far too much to accept the deviation.

 The Three Ladies

The Three Ladies.

Janai Brugger (Pamina) with Rodell Rosel (Monostatos)

Janai Brugger (Pamina) with Rodell Rosel (Monostatos).

Erika Miklosa as The Queen of the Night (spider on top) with Janai Brugger as Pamina below. Photo: Robert Millard

Erika Miklosa as The Queen of the Night (spider on top)
with Janai Brugger as Pamina below.
All Photos: Robert Millard