There are some productions that can’t be imagined until seen. This was certainly the case for the Philadelphia première of Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky’s fantastical romp through Mozart’s The Magic Flute. That this work was originally put on by the Komische Oper Berlin and that it emerged from the zany production company 1927 explains much. This was a version of Mozart born from centuries-long intimacy with the work, when after all due homage is paid and everything ‘nice’ has been said, and everything respectable done, one can afford to be entirely irreverent and playfully re-imagine the whole. Why not? Just for the heck of it? Why not place Mozart in the fey and flighty 1920s?

Jarrett Ott (Papageno) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Jarrett Ott (Papageno)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

It is a decade which surely would have suited him more than others in that century of woe: one can see him being very blithe in Weimar. Why not run the whole Singspiel in silent movie fashion, shot through with cartoon graphics, pictograms and comic book effects? For a start, you’d get rid of the dialogue and use intertitles (I loved the era-appropriate typography): "Am I dreaming?" (thus Tamino). It seemed apposite. And then, you’d stylize the acting, simplifying and distilling the meaning of this busy tale. Love, perceived in one’s dreams, is achievable in the real world only through hardship (ritualized as rites of initiation).

Rachel Sterrenberg (Pamina) © Kelly & Massa Photography
Rachel Sterrenberg (Pamina)
© Kelly & Massa Photography

Tamino was reminiscent of the silent movie heart-throb Rudolph Valentino. Ben Bliss was sweet voiced and elegant, and provided good-boy Mozart. Pamina recalled bob-haired iconic flapper Louise Brooks; Rachel Sterrenberg had a fresh coloratura soprano. Papageno (Jarrett Ott) as a slapstick Buster Keaton was a wonderful comic presence, and Monostatos an evil Nosferatu, direct from the German expressionist horror movie. I wished that Brenton Ryan could have had more heft for the personification of malice, but the twelve hench-dogs were superb. Sarastro (Peixin Chen) – variously a machine head (with voice amplified from off-stage) and a bearded sage had ample deep tones that breathed wisdom over the dream-crazed young people.

The Queen of the Night herself was reimagined as a giant spider (when you think about it, her perfect fit in the animal kingdom), head 30 feet high above the stage, and scary legs omnipresent. Not the ideal future mother-in-law, to say the least. There were moments when Olga Pudova sounded a little uncertain (and there were a few all but inaudible low notes), but she certainly achieved with ease the stratospheric heights demanded of her in the celebrated aria. The stylization of the acting did constrain the humanity of the interpretation in some ways, but in emphasizing the artifice and cliché of all human gesture, it served its purpose of universalizing the themes.

Olga Pudova (The Queen of the Night) © Kelly & Massa Photography
Olga Pudova (The Queen of the Night)
© Kelly & Massa Photography

The three ladies, Ashley Milanese, Siena Miller and Anastasiia Sidorova, flappers of the cigarette-wielding kind, boasted gracious voices, perfectly aligned: they were  glorious whenever they appeared. The chorus appeared on several occasions, unexpectedly in the theatrical boxes adjacent to the stage, and sung powerfully.

1927’s Magic Flute wasn’t just a bit peculiar: it embraced every possible peculiarity with virtuosic technical theatrics in a most engaging and amusing way. The hangman drawing that appeared when Papageno contemplated suicide brought the house down. This wasn’t just a variation on a theme of sameness. True, it provided no rest for the eyes: this was full-on sensory overload beloved by the generation of screen addicts that we are. This production twitched, flapped, whirled and crackled: revolving doors high up and low down, flying pink elephants, running legs, dancing feet, swooping daggers, drifting smoke rings, exploding hearts (and bombs), grinning smiles on the loose. The magic flute was imaged as a naked Pamina with wings; the magic bells had showgirl legs – the male fantasies of Tamino and the hapless Papageno respectively. I say it provided no rest, but there were moments of calm when the white spotlight, beloved of silent movie makers, rested on a character in their isolation (and loneliness), a loneliness which the co-directors have rightly sensed in the work. Christopher Hetherington is to be congratulated for his lighting, as is Paul Barritt for the most extraordinary amination sequences I have ever seen in opera.

Ben Bliss (Tamino) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Ben Bliss (Tamino)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

Was it all too much? No doubt for some; indeed for most, there must have been a moment or two when one wished to close one’s eyes and just listen, but one feared missing out. But this Magic Flute doesn’t stand alone; if that were the only version one ever heard (or saw), then one would certainly be short-changed, for the luxury of attending to Mozart’s music more than the production was not a luxury on offer. Still, in its own terms, it was racy, pacey and brilliantly clever.