Less than two years ago, the Minnesota Opera presented a wildly original, path-breaking production of Mozart's "Die Zauberflote," and it was the talk of the Twin Cities.
They brought it back this week for an encore run. Was the turnaround too quick?
Negative. This is opera like you've never seen it before and it's so fresh and beautifully executed at the Ordway in St. Paul, with great singers such as Christie Conover and Andrew Wilkowskie, I'd be first in line for tickets again in 2017.
The production, which opened Saturday and closes with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee, was created by the Komische Oper Berlinand an incredible theater group from Great Britain called 1927. They took Mozart's fairy tale opera, his last German opera, the one that he was humming on his death bed three months after it premiered in Vienna, and re-imagined it as a silent movie -- and more like a lost, goth German Expressionist film than Charlie Chaplinor Buster Keaton.
For those of us with a weakness for claymation, it's not far removed from the magic of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," either.
It's a creative whirlwind, lush with ideas, humor and humanity in every scene, powered by Mozart's glorious music as the gas in the engine.
The British theater company was founded in 2005 by animator/illustrator Paul Barritt and Suzanne Andrade, a writer and performer. Together with Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper in Berlin, they came up with a plan to amalgamate film and opera, and it premiered in November 2012. It was in Minnesota just 18 months later, and last month it was presented in China, with some of the cast members who are in St. Paul this week.
The Minnesota company rarely brings back warhorses after just two years. "Carmen" returns every 3-4 years, as regularly as the running of the bulls, but typically "The Magic Flute" would have returned to the Ordway in maybe 2018-19, with mostly new singers. But according to Laura Silver, the opera's communications director, the clock was ticking on a three-year contract with the producers, and they had to do it this year or wait for another chance, another time.
They went for it this year and doubled-down with six performances. Apparently it was an easy choice, made not long after the 2014 run, when the company says it broke box office records.
Though the singers, stagehands and musicians led by Music Director Michael Christie make it seem easy, the integration of cinema, live action and music make it as intricately choreographed as the innards of a Swiss watch. If a singer slips off tempo or isn't exactly where he's supposed to be to interact with the film, the whole scene comes apart.
Hopefully Christie receives a thank you note from his boss when the run is done, because he does a masterful job of keeping everyone on the tightrope.
Mozart's music seems beside the point at times, but the singers are outstanding, led by Conoveras a very Lulu-like Pamina, the unfortunate daughter of the Queen of the Night, who endures the purifying trials of the Masonic ritual with Prince Tamino. Conover, who has sung roles as diverse as Liu in "Turandot" and Micaela in "Carmen" with the Minnesota Opera, can belt it out, for one thing. She has a power and directness matched in this production only by Benjamin Sieverdingas Sarastro, and her two arias in Act Two, where she doubts Tamino's love, are deeply felt and only enhanced by the animation.
Behris locked into certain stock gestures as the Harold Lloyd-like prince, but vocally he's a forceful, elegant hero, ardent in "Dies Bildnis"and passionate but disciplined in the fantastically framed trio "Soll ich dich" with Sarastro and Pamina, where the lovers are divided by the pendelum of an immense grandfather's clock. A French-born tenor, he's been seen as a more traditional Tamino all over Europe, including with the Opera National de Paris.
Sieverding, whose costume (stovepipe hat, black topcoat, Dickensian beard) is right out of Chaplin's back shop, has to dig deep for Sarastro's ultra-low notes in "In Diesen Heil'gen Hallen"but he pulls it off, and he's more at home in the vocal range of "O Isis und Osiris,"when he sends Pamina and the prince through their trials. Soprano Jeni Houserhas the opposite challenge as the Queen of the Night -- impossibly high notes in both her arias -- and while she hit them on opening night, somewhat tentatively in "O zittre nicht" and with more confidence in "Der Holle Rache," she needed more volume and frenzy. That said, Houser gets to wear one of the most spectacular "costumes" you'll ever see in an opera house, and this "Der Holle Rache" is a Grand Guignol extravaganzathat the kids probably won't want to see.
The Queen's henchman Monostatos is a very un-PC character, but this production redeems him by turning him into a comic villain, a goofy Nosferatu-likecharacter wonderfully played by tenor John Robert Lindsey.
The birdman Papageno, the prince's sidekick, is Mozart's show stopper and comic relief, and Andrew Wilkowskeseems to relish every second of it. A baritone with a warm, muscular tone, a comfort level with German diction and a gift for physical comedy, he's a natural for the droll, Keaton-like character in this production. The duet with Papagena (sung on opening night by Bergen Baker) has a twist that I'm guessing Mozart and his collaborator, Emanuel Schikaneder, would have thought was hilarious.
Considering all the nonstop visuals, pacing is a problem at times. A few of the scenes are too drawn out, and with the tempo locked into the film, Christie can't do much about it from the podium. At times, the music seems only a soundtrack to the flick; you become so enchanted by the graphics, or so distracted, that you have to remind yourself to tune in.
The producers take liberties, no doubt. The biggest is the use of other music in between scenes. It's played on a tinkling pianoforte and amplified, and it sounds as if Mozart wrote it for the Keystone Cops, but it's not "The Magic Flute."
So, this production isn't for everyone. It's rare that a show doesn't get a standing ovation on opening night at the Ordway and this one didn't -- in part because many subscribers saw it just the spring before last? And it's hard to think of many glassic operas where this through-composed, cinematic approach would work.
But for "The Magic Flute," which has been touched by hijinx and high spirits almost since the night it premiered in 1791, it's genius.