In 2007 a show called Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea from fledgling theatre company 1927 was an instant word-of-mouth hit in its 40 seater Edinburgh Fringe venue.   The show toured internationally, and was seen in Berlin by opera director Barrie Kosky who instantly invited them to work on a new production of Die Zauberflöte for the Komische Oper. It was an unlikely request as Kosky had been bored stiff by productions of Die Zauberflöte in the past, yet knew that his opera house had to tackle this work sooner rather than later. Suzanne Andrade, director at 1927 and from a literary cabaret background, and animator Paul Barritt were complete strangers to the world of opera. They said yes immediately.

Die Zauberflöte, described as “an opera of pictures” is a perfect work for this collision of talent. On paper, the idea sounds deceptively simple: the set is one big projection screen with several rotating platforms at different levels to allow characters to appear and vanish in a cartoon film projection. Taking silent film and 1920s Berlin as their main references, the visual magic came from the madcap imagination of 1927, let loose on this most popular of operas from a complete blank canvas to form a riot of images on screen. Opera and video-projection are uneasy bedfellows, but these hand-drawn figures brought out a childlike wonder, hugging the audience in an embrace of humanitarian warmth, as this opera should. A zany cartoon cast of strange animals and mechanical creatures inhabit a steam-punk clockwork world, where a Tinkerbell winged fairly scatters magic notes, joins up the stars in the sky and takes the signs of the zodiac on a dance through the heavens. Papageno is accompanied by his all-knowing black cat, spectacularly useless at bird catching; when temporarily struck dumb by the three ladies, a cartoon red chattering mouth hovers teasingly round his head.

The singers are mostly fixed on their lofty vertiginous platforms or at stage level and they interact with the projected images with split second timing making it all work seamlessly. With a four night consecutive run, many parts were double cast, and the opening night singers were uniformly strong. Dominik Königer was a hapless everyman ‘Buster Keaton’ Papageno, a warm baritone in his rumpled rust coloured suit, dragged unwillingly through the whole adventure by Tamino, a dinner-suited Allan Clayton in particularly fine voice. The three ladies, Nina Bernsteiner, Karolina Gumos and Ezgi Kutlu were a strongly sung and amusing ensemble, dressed in 1930s three-quarter length earthy coloured coats with fur collars and cloche hats, blowing smoke rings and scattering love hearts.

Russian soprano Olga Pudova as an enormous spider with bayonet legs nailed her Queen of the Night aria, making the high notes sound completely natural rather than freakish. Fellow Russian Dmitry Ivanschenko as Sarastro, dressed like his followers in a black stovepipe hat and frock coat, had a lovely burnished voice with plenty of resonant depth. American soprano Maureen McKay, a brightly sung ‘Louise Brooks’ Pamina, seemed to get more than her fair share of horrors thrown at her in this production, from the Queen of the Night’s red knives pinning her circus-style to the backdrop, to being molested in her bed by the evil Monostatos. Three Boys from the Tölzer Knabenchoir sang sweetly and were given fluttery insect wings.   

The Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin under conductor Kristiina Poska was superb, bringing out the playfulness of Mozart’s score with a filigree lightness of touch, allowing the singers to shine through. The Komische Oper Chorus – at times onstage, offstage and in the boxes – were in good voice, a couple of slightly raggedy moments of ensemble immediately pounced on by Poska. Dialogue was replaced with silent movie style captions accompanied by Mozart’s fantasias on fortepiano.

Kosky and Andrade’s direction, dovetailing with Paul Baritt’s animations, was a thing of wonder in itself, but credit must go to the unseen crew behind the scenes in successfully getting singers onto the reverse of their tiny revolving platforms at different levels, all to split-second timing from the film loop operators and the music itself.

Edinburgh International Festival did well to secure this production, seen here at its British première. Enthusiastic applause for the cast and musicians at the end was augmented by loud cheering as the production team took their bows, a warm welcome back to the city for 1927 from their early success on the Fringe. While purists might struggle with this production, it is the vivid images that are going to haunt this opera: it will be a few years before I can hear Papageno’s “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” aria without conjuring flying pink elephants.