In the spring of 2014, Minnesota Opera found itself with a hit on its hands, an extravagantly clever multimedia production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” that set box office records for the company. A sure bet for revival, the show opened Saturday night at the Ordway Center in St. Paul, where it will continue through next weekend.
The production — described by its creators as a “reimagining” of Mozart’s alternately serious and comic exploration of love, truth and the search for enlightenment — is, except for a few cast changes, the same as what was seen here 18 months ago. The production blends live performance and hand-drawn animation and visually references silent films of the 1920s, notably Keaton, Chaplin and Louise Brooks, as well as German Expressionist cinema such as “Nosferatu.” All this suggests an untenable mix of elements.
Instead, the result, and even more so this second time around, seems witty, rambunctious and, in its own subversive way, faithful to the opera’s spirit and intent.
Detractors might describe the production as opera for people who hate opera, even though any number of confirmed and card-carrying opera lovers appeared to be enjoying themselves on opening night. An additional complaint might be that in an opera loaded with solemn Masonic imagery there are too many jokes and visual puns — languorous pink elephants lounging in martini glasses, immense spiders and ominous monkeys with pitchforks.
Remember, though, that Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, was also a renowned stage comedian. He was the first Papageno, the opera’s chief comic role, and by all accounts his act was less Noël Coward than what we would think of today as the baggy-pants burlesque style of Milton Berle or, at his silliest, Steve Martin. (At the Ordway the excellent baritone Andrew Wilkowske, playing Papageno, brings a comfortable funny, loose style to the part.) Maybe we’re the ones who sustain — and expect — too much solemnity in “The Magic Flute.”
And certainly the production has effectively serious moments. Our heroine, Pamina — the elegant soprano Christie Conover, her hair done up in Louise Brooks’ Lulu bangs — sings her heartfelt lament, “Ach, ich fuhl’s,” enclosed, evocatively, in a snow globe surrounded by barren trees. Then there’s the animated figure of the nude fairy. As before, she suggests Tinker Bell’s wayward kid sister who could use some counseling. But it was also clear this time around that she is a benevolent figure who embodies, via Tamino’s magic flute, the power of music to heal and regenerate life as well as the Enlightenment values so dear to Mozart and Schikaneder.
The production is a collaboration between Barrie Kosky, artistic head of the Komische Oper Berlin, and the British avant-garde theater company 1927, led by Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt. The production debuted in Berlin in 2012, with Andrade and Kosky directing and Barritt drawing the animation by hand (which reportedly took 18 months). In the U.S. the work is a coproduction of Minnesota Opera and L.A. Opera. Tobias Ribitzki staged the production here both times, and Esther Bialas designed the inventive sets and costumes, Raymond W. Steveson Jr. the lighting.
Our returning Tamino, dressed as a dourly earnest Buster Keaton, was the exceptionally fine tenor Julien Behr. Jeni Houser made a fierce Queen of the Night, singing those daunting high notes with impressive ease and accuracy. Bergen Baker was a saucy Papagena recalling Mae West. Benjamin Sieverding wrestled with Sarastro’s difficult low notes — and lost. John Robert Lindsey, made up as Nosferatu, was a truly scary Monostratos. Tricia Van Ee, Shannon Prickett and Victoria Vargas made a smooth but vital vocal blend as the Three Ladies. Conductor Michael Christie drew graceful and sensibly paced sounds from the chorus and orchestra.
And finally, it should be noted that this is one “Magic Flute” that avoids those long, tedious dialogues of Schikaneder’s. Instead we get snappy, right-to-the-point silent-screen titles like “Take heart, Tamino!” We all took heart and saved a lot of time.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.