Philadelphia — Mozart’s comic masterpiece, The Magic Flute, is a fantastical opera with dragons, bird people, evil witches and a lot of mysterious Masonic trappings. But in production by the British theatre company 1927, imported by Opera Philadelphia, the combination of live action and animation turns out to be an opium dream—or an LSD trip—of a show.
It is cast in the style of a silent movie with a Dada influence, the singers sometimes appearing as floating heads on animated bodies and sometimes in their real form. Wheels and spirals are almost ever-present and are very much like what you find on YouTube to enhance acid trips with hypnotizing visuals.
The result is a magnificent musical and visual display that, surprisingly, never overwhelms Mozart’s glorious music.
There is no set, just a huge projection screen that fills the entire proscenium of the stage at the Academy of Music. Sometimes the singers appear as a full living bodies but most times they appear as a head placed on an animated body. For example, the Queen of the Night is a huge spider with gigantic legs that throw lightning bolts as she stomps around. Putting an arachnid mask on Olga Pudova and sticking her head through a hole in the gigantic movie screen create this striking effect.
The main reference to the silent movie era is that Papagano is based on the young Buster Keaton and his trademark porkpie hat. Baritone Jarrett Ott channels Keaton’s physicality and dead-on comic timing. Rachel Sterrenberg brings a full-throated soprano voice to her Pamina and is reminiscent of Clara Bow, but the other characters have no direct counterpart in the silent movie era.
The opera opens with our hero, Tamino, fleeing from a huge dragon—always a problem in traditional staging. Not so here. This animated dragon swoops around him breathing fire and brimstone. It is a stunning affect that sets the mood for the rest of this tripped out version of the Opera.
All the singers are first-class but there are some standouts. One is Ben Bliss as a sturdy Tamino. He has a stunning lyric tenor voice, with great flexibility, and singd the two very different arias with equal aplomb. Sterrenberg brings a beautiful creamy soprano voice to her portrayal Pamina. Her rendition of “Ah, Ich Fuls” commands the stage and hushes the audience.
Olga Pudova, as the Queen of the Night, throws notes that are similar to the daggers that her animated spider body throws out from her legs. The notoriously difficult notes are so in tune that they almost sound electronically generated.
As Papagano, Ott conveys the goofiness that we remember from Buster Keaton performances but adds his own special secret sauce to the character. He is not the feather-clad bird catcher that we see in most productions. Instead, he is in Keaton’s white suit and bumbles his way through the role. He is still the coward that Mozart intended and his adolescent desperation to find his Papagana remains his life’s riveting force.
The character of Monostatos is scaled back some to eliminate the racist overtones of Mozart's original but he retains his nasty disposition. He is reminiscent of Nosferatu in the silent movies and has a pack of vicious dogs on a leash to threaten Papagano and his accompanying cat.
Conductor David Charles Abell does a marvelous job of keeping up with the Joneses. The animated film is incapable of nuance so its tempi have to be maintained throughout or he would risk falling behind. This takes away much of his freedom to add his own nuance to Mozart score, much like what happens in ballet when the dancers have rehearsed to a specific recording that has to be matched in performance.
The opera has been condensed and all the dialogue has been cut. Instead, we get standard tableaux of the characters speaking with the written words flying out of their mouth.
Even so, the opera feels long once you get accustomed to the trick. But every time that happens, something fascinating occurs on the screen and all is forgiven as you reengage with this immensely clever production. For fans of the opera and fans of animation, plus fans of the silent movie era, this is a must-see. I think that covers just about everybody.