The ongoing popularity generated by Barrie Kosky's silent film-inspired animation-heavy production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte is clear, with its continuing to captivate audiences in the Northern Hemisphere and now Australasia since its premiere at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2012. This Auckland Arts Festival performance marked its New Zealand premiere. The composer and his librettist Schikaneder had both envisaged Die Zauberflöte as a theatrical spectacular full of special effects and, in a collaboration with British theatre company 1927, Kosky has managed just that.

Komische Oper Berlin's <i>Zauberflöte</i> © Michael Smith
Komische Oper Berlin's Zauberflöte
© Michael Smith

The backdrop is an enormous screen onto which ingenious and colourful animated scenes are continuously projected. The Queen of the Night appeared as a malevolent giant spider, complete with exoskeleton, threatening Tamino with her stabbing limbs and summoning hordes of smaller spiders to writhe over Pamina when the latter hesitated to commit to Sarastro's murder. Weird mechanical creatures populate Sarastro's temple and Monostatos is accompanied by demonic black dogs in his pursuit of Pamina. The titular flute is instead an animated nude fairy that shoots musical notes across the stage. Most stunning of all were the scenes showing the leading couple's trials by fire and water, showing the pair being first assaulted by the plumes of a flame from a huge fire monster and then trapped in an underwater landscape. To create such a miraculous fairy tale setting for these scenes would be nigh-on impossible in a more conventional production, in which this scene is the one that often drags the most.

Komische Oper Berlin's <i>Zauberflöte</i> © Michael Smith
Komische Oper Berlin's Zauberflöte
© Michael Smith

The direction was also heavily inspired by the silent film era, with the spoken dialogue being replaced by large captions accompanied by a weirdly-tuned fortepiano. Papageno was a clear Buster Keaton analogue complete with exaggerated facial expressions and a fair amount of slapstick interactions with various animated creatures. Pamina gave us strong Louise Brooks vibes. To pull it off required a cast full of consummate professionals and true ensemble spirit. All had to interact not only to one another but also to the various animated projections: Pamina and Tamino dodged a gigantic animated pendulum swinging back and forth, Papageno cried comically huge flows of animated tears and later rode on the back of a flying pink elephant. An immense amount of rehearsal must have gone into making these interactions seem natural, yet they went off without a hitch, with the animated creatures feeling just as real as the actual characters onstage.

On occasions, the presented images ran the risk of overshadowing the musical performers. Often, there were limitations on the singers' ability to move imposed by the need to interact with the animations, with them often being called upon to sing from narrow platforms jutting out from the rear of stage. However, the scenes were always ravishing to the eye and very often highly amusing or exciting. Of the cast, by far the standout was Kim-Lilian Strebel, who brought ravishing tone to Pamina's music. The section starting “Tamino mein!”, when Pamina reunited with her lover, was particularly achingly beautiful, the vaulting phrases shining with an almost lunar glow. Hers is a name to watch for sure.

Komische Oper Berlin's <i>Zauberflöte</i> © Michael Smith
Komische Oper Berlin's Zauberflöte
© Michael Smith

If none of the other singers particularly stood out vocally, equally none of them let the side down. Aaron Blake was a more-than-usually robust-sounding Tamino, tackling the more heroic sections of the first act finale with aplomb but not lacking elegance elsewhere. It was hard not to be won over by the boundless energy of Joan Martin-Royo's Papageno. There was a terrifying Queen of the Night from Christina Poulitsi who, aside from an unfortunate crack on her final high F in “Der Holle Rache”, was strong and pitch-perfect in alt. At the other end of the scale, Sarastro was given solemn dignity and firm low notes by Korean bass In-Sung Sim. Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza tackled most of Mozart's score very briskly – ideally suited for the manic momentum of the production if not for bringing out the moments of pathos. Pamina's second-act lament, for example, was not given the breathing room it ideally needed for Strebel to fill out the long, arching phrases with her luxurious tone.

Overall, Kosky's Zauberflöte production deserves its immense popularity. The stage scenes as presented were undeniably brilliant, exciting and endlessly fascinating, and the cast executed the concept with delightful confidence. Only occasionally did they seem straitjacketed by what is clearly a limiting stage setup. Kosky once declared himself to have been “bored shitless” by his first experience with Mozart's opera but it is incomprehensible that anyone could be so here, in the face of the miraculous combination of the mesmerising visuals and Mozart's music.

****1