Barrie Kosky has made no bones about the fact that directing The Magic Flute was not on his wish list, having been bored rigid by it as a child. But as Artistic Director of the Komische Oper Berlin there came a point when he knew he needed to include a production in the company’s repertoire. Then he happened to see Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by British theatre company 1927, and a light bulb lit up in his mind.
Aaron Blake, Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos, Nadine Weissman and Joan Martín-Royo. Photograph © Toni Wilkinson
1927, which takes its name from the year of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, is known for its ingenious integration of live performance, music and hand drawn, vintage-looking animation, creating a distinctive aesthetic that unites silent film with English music hall. Kosky was excited. Here was a way to stage a production of Mozart’s Singspiel that interested him. He approached 1927, who agreed to collaborate with him on what would be their first opera, and magic was made.
The production, co-directed by Kosky and 1927’s Suzanne Andrade, with a kaleidoscopic design of exquisite hand drawn animation by 1927’s Paul Barritt, premiered in Berlin in 2012 and has since toured the world playing to well over half a million people, and counting. It has finally arrived in Australia where it is appearing at the Perth Festival, presented in association with West Australian Opera and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, before moving to the Adelaide Festival. And you can see why it has been attracting full houses wherever it goes; it is an utter delight.
The Magic Flute premiered in 1791 at the Viennese theatre of its librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, who was also an actor and impresario. Mozart (who would be dead two months later) conducted, with Schikaneder playing the bird-catcher Papageno. The duo wanted the work to be populist, performed with a knockabout energy and charm, while referencing serious themes including the Enlightenment and Freemasonry, as well as wisdom, magic, honesty, bravery and, of course, love.
Christina Poulitsi and Aaron Blake. Photograph © Toni Wilkinson
It’s a challenging piece to nail for modern audiences and directors have experimented freely. Australians embraced Julie Taymor’s production, which began at The Metropolitan Opera in 2004 and was then remade at Opera Australia, which first staged it in 2012. Taymor edited back the score (including the removal of the overture) and used an English translation by J.D. McClatchy. The staging (which ran around half an hour less shorter usual) featured giant puppets as well as other special effects and proved popular with family audiences.
Kosky and 1927 maintain the full score but have dropped the awkward spoken dialogue scenes, replacing them with tightly edited versions which are shown on screen like silent movie text to which the singers react like silent movie actors. These sections are accompanied by music from Mozart’s piano fantasias in C minor and D minor, played on an 18th-century fortepiano. It does change the rhythm of the piece and purists may not like it, but for me it worked a treat.
The central feature of the production is its glorious visual aesthetic that suits the opera’s surreal, dream-like world. The entire set design features exquisite, witty animation, which took Barritt a year to do, projected onto a huge white screen the width and height of the stage. The cast interact with the animation with incredible precision, requiring split-second timing. They are positioned on platforms high above the stage, which spin around through special doors, or perform at specific spots the front of the stage, often circled with a spotlight.
Iwona Sobotka and Joan Martín-Royo. Photograph © Toni Wilkinson
Several of the characters have been styled after movie characters. The cowardly, cheeky, endearing bird-catcher Papageno is modelled after Buster Keaton, and sports a mustard suit and porkpie hat, Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night who Prince Tamino falls in love with and sets out to rescue from the High Priest Sarastro, looks like Louise Brooks as Lulu in a flapper dress with her famous dark bob haircut, Monostatos, the manipulative servant of Sarastro, who lusts after the captured Pamina, looks like Nosferatu, and the ferocious Queen of the Night has a skeletal human torso and a gigantic spider’s body.
The dashing Prince Tamino, in dinner suit, looks like a movie matinee idol, the Three Ladies wear 1920s outfits with cloche hats, tailored coats and beads, blowing smoke rings from their cigarettes, Sarastro is a dressed like a sinister Victorian gentleman in top hat, while Papagena is a showgirl.
The opera begins with Tamino running from the serpent. Standing behind a box at the front of the stage, we see tenor Aaron Blake’s physical body from the waist up, with animated legs running frantically as if in a cartoon below, while a gigantic orange and yellow image of the serpent bears down on him. Immediately the audience laughs with delight.
From there, the succession of inspired visual imagery never stops, causing gasps and much merriment. It is all beautifully integrated with the sublime, effervescent, irresistible music (ebulliently played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under conductor Hendrik Vestmann) and is such fun – and at times creepily dark – that that the audience is transfixed, wondering what is coming next.
The magic flute and Aaron Blake. Photograph © Toni Wilkinson
Describing too much of it will spoil the fun for audiences, but expect a profusion of butterflies, exploding red hearts, steam-punk cogs and wheels, and mechanical animals in Sarastro’s domain, freaky blinking eyes, and a pink cocktail (instead of wine) that triggers flying pink elephants when Papageno abandons Sarastro’s fasting trial. The magic flute itself is a naked fairy who leaves a stream of musical notes behind her as she flies around, while the magic bells given to Papageno resemble cut-out paper figures.
There are numerous inspired effects, such as Sarastro and Tamino descending deep into the earth in a lift, as the images ascend in trompe l’oeil fashion, and the male chorus dressed as Sarastro, gathering around Pamina and then separating to show her suddenly re-costumed in a full-length black Victorian mourning dress.
Though the visuals dominate, the singers more than hold their own. Aaron Blake excels as Tamino, cutting a dashing figure and singing with an effortless, smooth, gleaming tenor. Joan Martín-Roges captures the goofy charm of Papageno, and charms with a rich, shiny baritone, while Christina Poulitsi thrilled the audience with the Queen of the Night’s famous coloratura aria Der Hölle Rache kochi in meinem Herzen (Hell’s vengeance boils my heart) with its string of High Fs. There is also impressive singing from Iwona Sobotka as Pamina, Insung Sim as Sarastro, Ivan Tursic as Monostatos, and Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos and Nadine Weissman as the Three Ladies. (The production has two casts.)
Insung Sim. Photograph © Toni Wilkinson
For all the exhilarating imagery, Kosky, Andrade and Barritt don’t pull back on the sexist and racist elements of the piece with the belittling comments about women and the “black”, lustful, greedy Monostatos highlighted clearly.
All in all, the production is a charming, giddy flight of fancy that enchants with its visual aesthetic and witty storytelling. While still acknowledging the opera’s darker themes, it leaves you feeling as intoxicated as if you had been drinking an elephant-inducing pink cocktail with Papageno.
The Magic Flute plays at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth for the Perth Festival until February 23, and then at the Adelaide Festival Centre for the Adelaide Festival, March 1 – 3