Die Zauberflöte is a work whose outward simplicity masks internal complexity and even contradictions. Mozart’s music is childishly tuneful and yet reaches for the classically sublime; Emmanuel Schikaneder’s libretto alternates a magical quest story out of a German storybook with Masonic claptrap and secondhand Voltaire. For a children’s opera, its message occasionally goes off the rails; for Enlightenment philosophy it seems silly (and its treatment of race and gender hardly progressive). Contemporary stage directors approaching this piece have many options, as well as challenges.
This new production at Berlin’s Komische Oper performs daring surgery on Flute: it reconfigures the Singspiel as a silent film. Directors Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky replace the spoken dialogue with a few projected titles of text as the cast freezes between sung numbers. It might seem a gimmick, or an acknowledgement of the oft-stated opinion that Schikaneder’s spoken dialogue is long-winded and tiring, but it’s actually only the beginning. The technologically audacious, faux-naïve style of 1920s cinema proves an inspired lens (so to speak) for this work’s quirky tone. Produced with the British theater collective 1927 (named after the year of The Jazz Singer and led by Andrade and Paul Barritt), the production mixes the live singers with colorful, inventive, and often very beautiful animations that render the entire thing somewhere between an opera and a cartoon. The visual field is flattened into a white screen, with the singers occupying only an extremely narrow strip in front of it, as well as various vertically elevated points on it, courtesy of a shifting series of doors and ledges. (A paradox of this production is that its magic would be very difficult to appreciate on DVD.)
The animations are the real star of the show, and they are a constant delight. Fortunately, 1927 did not try to reproduce an actual silent movie, but rather came up with something both modern and retro. The images are mostly line drawings rather than realistic video, and the style is whimsical and often very funny. Papageno is followed by an angular black cat, Tamino is actually swallowed by the dragon, and declarations of love are usually accompanied by many anatomically accurate hearts careening across the screen. The Queen of the Night is an enormous, angry spider, her animated legs covering the entire wall. Esther Bialas’ costumes recall the Expressionist Weimar cinema of the 1920s (particularly the Three Ladies), though Papagena’s showgirl outfit suggests the shows that were occupying the Komische Oper’s theater – then known as the Metropol-Theater – at the same time. In a nod to the work’s retrograde gender politics, Pamina is dressed in a Victorian gown while she, as a woman, must forgo the trials that Tamino undergoes.
To be sure, this approach does come with some sacrifices. The stage has no equivalent of film’s close-up, and the singers are often overshadowed by the animations at the expense of character development. One notable exception was Nicole Chevalier’s Pamina, who found heightened expressivity in her sharply held poses and focused stare (aided by a Louise Brooks bob). Many of the others seemed comparatively bland – Papageno would seem a natural for a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton treatment but ended up passive, and Sarastro was a particular blank as well. As for the giant question of Meaning, the production provides few answers, and is more interested in an adventure. (The six-year-old girl sitting next to me vocally loved every second of it.) When the villains are vanquished and Sarastro emerges triumphant, the final chorus is sung without animations, in front of the red curtain. It’s suggestive, but if this signifies anything, it beats me.
Musically, the production was respectable and enjoyable if not particularly outstanding. Kristiina Proska led an assertive, energetic, sometimes almost aggressive orchestra, though balances were good. Chevalier’s clear and bright soprano took vocal honors as well as acting. Peter Sonn was a stalwart and even-toned Tamino. Julia Novikova nailed most of the Queen of the Night’s coloratura, though she sounded less formidable in the lower-lying parts of the role. Alexey Antonov was a light-voiced and unmemorable Sarastro, and Tom Erik Lie a perfectly well-sung but strangely understated Papageno.
Die Zauberflöte is a very familiar work, but this is a fresh and charming take that never stops surprising.