LAO ist ein Berliner… And life is sweet

Pamina (Janai Brugger) bonds with Papageno (Rodion Pogossov) over their shared desire to find true love. (Photo: Robert Millard)
Pamina (Janai Brugger) bonds with Papageno (Rodion Pogossov) over their shared desire to find true love. (Photo: Robert Millard)

A fond little hat-tip to JFK seems appropos this week, and Los Angeles Opera gives us a dubious opportunity to crack wise, as well as a glorious opp to cheer, with the German-born production of The Magic Flute that debuts this weekend.  Here’s the nutshell version: get your butt in a seat. This version of the too-often hackneyed Mozart classic will simply blow your mind.

Please forgive the heresy, and bear with me for a short rant.  I’m well aware that ‘Flute’ is thought to be one of the most beloved works in the repertoire. But established and enduring as the music has proven to be, the plot, the themes and yes, the abiding misogyny continue to provoke brisk controversy, cause staging difficulties, and fail to inspire many, many modern production teams.  Thanks goodness for directors like this production’s Barrie Kosky (and, from the rumors, for Simon McBurney, whose take on the flute is currently playing at ENO).  There’s hope yet for this opera in modern times!

The reality is that it’s simply been done badly, far too often.  The beautiful tunes, standout arias, small cast and shortish length make this show a popular selection for college programs and shoestring companies, meaning that for many students, their families and friends, this is one of their first operatic experiences. Mozart or not, that’s not necessarily a good thing, considering the convoluted plot, thick German (or worse, a range of terrible translations), the spoken dialogue that is a bear for many opera singers, and the reality of putting inexperienced, underdeveloped singers into roles that they cannot usually execute with real aplomb.  This wicked combination of pitfalls all too frequently results in head-scratching, wan smiles, pats on the head, and silent oaths that “opera is not for me”.

So this production is all the more important for its radical creativity, genuinely original treatment, and a consistently stellar cast that does not disappoint.  Importing Kosky’s treatment from its inception at Komische Oper Berlin, LAO took a chance on the very new, and has made it their own.  Drawing from some of LAO’s most popular stars of recent years, and bringing in a couple of standout visitors, the show is delightful, driven by jaw-dropping projected animations and centered around one well-sung tune after another. Much of the dialogue has been omitted or incorporated as silent movie slides, nicely side-stepping one of the opera’s major hurdles for the audience.  But it’s the visuals that really shine.

It’s difficult to describe the live impact of this truly innovative presentation, but let’s give it a shot:  the action takes place in front of a set that is essentially an enormous white wall, with cutouts and additions, the whole thing filling the proscenium.  This huge expanse of white serves as a blank canvas for the projected cartoons that decorate the space, tell the story, and costume and even seem to interact with the live actors.

The Three Ladies (left to right: Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco, Peabody Southwell) rescue Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee, lower left) from the dragon. (Photo: Robert Millard)
The Three Ladies (left to right: Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco, Peabody Southwell) rescue Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee, lower left) from the dragon. (Photo: Robert Millard)

There are windows and doors that open at various heights, floor pieces that catch the projections and provide objects the actors can work around, and small platforms that performers can be strapped to as they pivot out (see the Three Ladies, right) to perform seemingly in mid-air.  The projections moving all around them become set, additional characters, atmosphere and sometimes pure conceptual exploration — and it works far better than one would think.  The actors respond and react to the world of light and shadow around with astonishing believability, running away from dark hounds, holding a cartoon bird on a finger or cat on a shoulder, or fleeing from a dragon as big as the stage.  It’s a sort of combination of Laugh-In‘s peekaboo windows and Roger Rabbit‘s genre-bending interactivity, with a decidedly ’20s-era art deco feel and the slightly subversive aesthetic of Fritz Lang (who we’ve also ref’d to LAO, with last year’s Flying Dutchman).  It all rolls up into a “CGI Live” experience that is like nothing else.

In additional to the visual splendor, the vocal performances are superb, particularly those of Janai Brugger (Pamina), Lawence Brownlee (Tamino), and Rodell Rosel (Monostatos).  Nearly across the board, the cast is well-suited and charmismatic, with the possible exception of the three Knaben, who were probably, let’s be fair, up past their bedtime.  LA Opera often uses kids from local children’s choirs in productions such as this, and there’s a reason these roles are so often played by young women — they’re not easy.  It’s a directorial choice that worked aesthetically, with some loss of vocality:  these kids did an OK job, but the appeal was more in their potential than current skill.  Looking forward to seeing what they can do as they develop more fully.

I could go on and on, and there are certainly folks who disagree with my take.   But you get the idea.  Just go — it’s too good to miss.

More about this production

Twitter hashtag:  #LAOFlute

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