Saturday, March 2, 2019

Mesmerising animation and a naked fairy star in Kosky's The Magic Flute at Adelaide Festival

For maverick Australian director Barrie Kosky, imagination and risk are as inseparable as, in the words of early 17th century English scholar Robert Burton, “a shadow to a body”. Then again, that might not be the best analogy since Kosky could pull the shadow from its entity as part of his unique brand of directorial stagecraft if he so wished.

Komische Oper Berlin, The Magic Flute
The untiring spirit, inventiveness and excitement that Kosky brings to the stage is now a given. Back in 2012, in the same season Kosky was appointed its Chief Director, a new production of W. A. Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder’s 1791 vivid fantasy and rocky road to love and enlightenment opened at Berlin’s Komische Oper. Conceived with Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt from UK theatre company 1927, in The Magic Flute Kosky took one of his greatest risks. 

In an article by Steve Dow for The Monthly, Kosky remarked when engaging 1927, “I said, ‘No, we can throw all that out (man in bird costume, man with flute, all the images you see in 90 per cent of productions) and completely reinterpret the opera in your visual language and the way we want to tell the story.’ So then they got excited.” So did I. I knew a little of the production, had understood that it had travelled widely in Europe, North America and Asia and had read enough supportive reviews of it. But I still had no idea what to expect at its opening night performance as part of the 2019 Adelaide Festival (in association with State Opera of South Australia).

With extraordinarily detailed animated projections by Paul Barritt (costumes by Esther Bialas and lighting by Diego Leetz), the era of silent movies and German Expression come crashing kaleidoscopically together. In the process, however, the work’s enrapturing balance of comic charm and depth of emotion that have earned it a place in the top 10 most performed operas, appears to be thrown out the window too. Barritt’s wild and wickedly clever animations strangle rather than elucidate the story. Brainstormed and knee-jerk interpretations are aplenty and likely unforgettable in their realisation. But almost every audience applause, chuckle and reaction accompanies the visually spectacular instead of its storytelling told through characters, voice and music. 

Komische Oper Berlin, The Magic Flute
When the curtain goes up at the end of the overture, the ‘silent movie’ begins, starring a handsome, smart-suited Prince Tamino (Aaron Blake). Escaping the wrath of a hungry dragon, Tamino sings away and waves his arms as his legs are animated in a runaway hurry through a spinning forest of trees - the first chuckle. That, and ending up in the dragon’s stomach with the Three Ladies (Mirka Wagner, Maria Fiselier and Nadine Weissmann), who evoke the music hall singers from Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 animated comedy The Triplets of Belleville and whose love hearts waft and wrestle for Tamino’s affection, begin just a tiny fraction of the creative team’s humoured approach.

The mustard-suited Buster Keaton-inspired Papageno (Tom Erik Lie) becomes fodder for a swathe of comic delights. Odd but nevertheless digestible, Papageno’s magic bells are a box of leggy chorus-girl cutouts that dance their spell over the evil Nosferatu-inspired Monostatos (Emil Ławecki) and his heavies - a scene that surely influenced Kosky's tap-dancing noses in his 2016 production of Shostakovich's The Nose - and come to his aid in his dark, but overly drawn out, suicidal moment. Roast chicken with gravy and pink elephant cocktails are his food and wine and his Papagena (Talya Lieberman), unsurprisingly, a chorus girl. 

Komische Oper Berlin, The Magic Flute
The ruthless Queen of the Night (Aleksandra Olczyk) is a giant spindly legged spider with a speck of a head, her diametric opposite Sarastro (Andreas Bauer Kanabas), an upright, top hat and tails kind of guy. And Pamina (Kim-Lilian Strebel), black-bobbed and starchily dressed as silent screen star Louise Brooks, shows the courage to ignore her mother’s command to kill the good Sarastro and join Tamino on his trials through fire and water. So why have a magic flute when you can marvel at the work of a naked fairy as she fleets about and leaves her trail of musical notes behind.

In this ‘silent movie’ vision - white screen and all with a few openings for entrances and exits among the animated swirl - the often drab spoken dialogue between Mozart’s radiant music is appropriately created in delightfully flowing titles to which Mark McNeill’s fortepiano accompaniment gives acoustic life. The music isn’t always a winning bridging device and neither are the often abrupt scene changes. And almost always it appears that characters are more effective at interacting with the animations than each other.

It even seemed that the cast and the pit were keenly aware that everything about this Flute has to do with its cornucopia of fantastic imagery. Despite the good musicianship from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conductor Jordan De Souza added little punch to the affair in what was a noticeably lukewarm reading. 

Overall, the singing similarly was tepid and inhibited. The exception was Strebel’s convincing and affecting Pamina to whom she gave a strong, secure and appealingly multi-coloured glow. The indisputable highlight belongs to Strebel’s morose but hauntingly sublime "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden". Believing that Tamino doesn’t love her, Strebel captured Pamina’s pain and solitary heart, sung within the powerful image of a snow dome as the snow turns to ash.

Komische Oper Berlin, The Magic Flute
For Tamino, Blake’s warmth and smoothness of tone lost form at the top of the voice. The diction was superb and crisp but Lie rarely set a spark to Papageno’s glorious melodies while Olczyk’s crystalline top notes pierced the air thrillingly as the Queen of the Night but the ferocity was turned down in her rage. Bauer Kanabas’ Sarastro and Ławecki’s Monostatos were sung with adequate intent but more impressive were the silken lines of the Three Boys (members of Tölzer Knabenchor) and the Komische Oper Berlin Chorus (Chorus Director David Cavelius) who lifted out textures rarely heard.

Despite the fact that so many of the zanily concocted scenes and images will etch their mark, the biggest question for me that lays over this Flute is what makes this concept especially suitable for the stage when the intent is so clearly in making a film. One day later, I’m loving what I saw. On opening night, after the first act, I almost wanted to walk away and not go back until I was ready again, like wanting to pause a movie, or give up on it completely. I’d be happy to see this Flute again with more refined music-making and easier-flowing scene changes. Regardless, once seen, it’s highly likely that you’ll never see another Magic Flute without imagining Kosky, Andrade and Barritt’s endearing naked fairy. 

The Magic Flute 
Production from Komische Oper Berlin
Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival 
Until 3rd March, 2019

Production Photos: Tony Lewis

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