Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte lives up to the ‘magic’ in its title. It is a story of enchantment, witchcraft, and transformation. Peter Hoar reviews Komische Opera Berlin's production at Auckland Arts Festival.
The production of the opera in this year’s Auckland Arts Festival uses the magic of cinema to take the opera back to its roots in popular theatre. This was a vibrant, funny, and fast-moving show that had the audience laughing and gasping with wonder. It may have used state of the art animation and projection techniques but it retained the story’s humanity.
This production reimagines Mozart’s 1791 Singspiel as a 1920s silent film. The singers perform on platforms set in a dizzyingly tall flat wall and interact with projected hand-drawn animations. The live performers are in effect playing in a film which is based on the style of 1920s silent cinema. Spoken lines are given as cinema intertitles while a fortepiano plays parts of Mozart piano sonatas. The animations might have become something of a tiresome gimmick but the ingenuity of the staging and the imaginative animations made for a zany and endlessly entertaining show that never flagged.
The animation and costumes mashed Weimar and silent-era Hollywood with a nod or two at Georges Méliès. The singers were dressed as famous silent film stars. Pamina was a Louise Brooks lookalike with bobbed hair and white face. The hapless Papageno was Buster Keaton. The villainous Monostatos was in full Nosferatu costume while the Queen of the Night was a giant spider. Shades of Peter Jackson’s Shelob perhaps. Cultural references flashed by in the animations. An exploding bomb turning into a piece of Lichtenstein Pop Art with hints of the luckless Wile E. Coyote.
A bibulous Papageno flying with seductive pink elephants reminded me of Disney’s Fantasia with its balletic hippopotami (Let alone Dumbo). Papageno had a sidekick in the shape of a straggly black cat, straight from the famous cabaret poster, who had its own adventures alongside the humans. The animations were spectacular, whimsical, frightening, funny, and integral to this fast moving and always dynamic version of the opera.
But all this would have been just an empty, pretty spectacle without performers to bring it alive. This was a hard job in that everyone had to hit their cues every time as the film was never going to stop and let them pick up again. But the music was far from mechanical. The APO were as solid and reliable as ever and there was fine fortepiano playing from Mark McNeill during the intertitle sequences.
The singers all brought character, humanity, and individuality to their roles. Joan Martin-Royd had a lot of fun as Papageno and was an audience favourite. There was real poignancy amid all the knockabout farce as when Kim-Lilian Strebel’s Pamina contemplated suicide. The Queen of the Night was a scary giant spider which might have troubled any arachnophobes in the audience. Christina Poulitsi relished this role and delivered a swaggering version of That Aria. Ivan Turšić was a suitably creepy and slimy Monostatos in full Nosferatu costume. Overall the singing was solid and well done rather than spectacular but the performers gave the production heart and feeling.
Die Zauberflöte can pose problems for modern audiences. There are sexist and racist attitudes and a certain amount of clunky word spinning in the spoken sections. But this production is fast and engaging. The animations and staging add layers of meaning that undermine the more questionable aspects. It retains the earthy humour that delighted Mozart’s audiences and retools it for modern expectations. But this production also underlines the original’s themes of rationality, fortitude, and tolerance that seem more relevant than ever in our own troubled and distracted times.
The Magic Flute, ASB Theatre, Friday 8 March 2019
APO, Komische Oper Berlin & 1927.