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Review: LA Opera turns 'The Magic Flute' into Mickey Mozart with plot, design changes

A scene from the 2016 staging of
A scene from the 2016 staging of "The Magic Flute."

Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reviews "The Magic Flute" by L.A. Opera, which has its final performance Sunday.

Raoul Ruiz, the late, great Chilean filmmaker, had this idea for a 3-D stage play. Half  the actors would wear pale red costumes and makeup, while the other half would wear pale blue costumes and makeup — and the audience would wear special glasses. You get the drift.

Ruiz was kidding, I hope — but unfortunately production designers Paul Baritt, Susan Andrade and Barrie Kosky had a theatrical idea that was just as silly and is now actualized on the operatic stage. That idea: Why not turn one of the greatest operas of all time into a full-length, live animated feature?

The Magic Flute trailer

This production of Mozart’s "The Magic Flute," now at the L.A. Opera, originated at the Komische Oper Berlin. (I take it that the word “komisch” here is used in its secondary German dictionary meaning of “strange.”) Kosky calls it “quite an adventure.” I call it "a transgression against everything Mozart accomplished in his mystic and magical Masonic masterpiece," which has here been flattened into a two-dimensional cartoon phantasmagoria you might call "Mickey Mozart."

It runs counter to much of what the opera’s words tell us in a basic simple story of a quest for true love in a fantasy land: Papageno, the man of birds, has a pet cat instead. Tamino, the hero, instead of fleeing a snake, is dressed like a lounge lizard —  running on a treadmill from what appears to be a giant puffer fish. The benign wizard Sorastro dresses like P.T. Barnum in a plug hat. Tamino’s love Pamina is intended to look like vamp actress Louise Brooks, but resembles Betty Boop.

“The Magic Flute” has a basic plot swerve whereby a protagonist introduced as good turns evil in the end, so it’s crucial that the Queen of Night be introduced as a sympathetic character. After all, her servants save Tamino from the snake, she gives him the magic flute (here represented as a nude, soaring animated nymph) of the title and his three boy spirit guides (whose perfect little voices were unfortunate casualties of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s abstruse acoustics). It normally takes a lot of plot to turn her into the villain of the piece — but not here, where she shows up as a six-story black widow spider, looking like the steampunk war machine from “Wild Wild West.” We know that she’s a wrongo from the get-go, and there goes that storyline.

Perhaps each opera critic ought to carry around a black velvet blindfold. That way, when attending a production whose staging destroys the very drama it ought to be assisting, he or she can slip it on and relax into the wonderful music — and the music here was indeed wonderfully performed.

The Queen of Night vengeance aria from So Young Park was the high point of the entire evening.   Marita Salberg sang Pamina with a resonant precision. Her character carries most of the opera’s true passion and feeling (as opposed to its masculinist philosophy) and she bears her burden brilliantly. Ben Bliss’s Tamino was warm and often enthralling.

Ben Bliss behind the scenes video

Jonathan Michie was a winning Papageno, but the production’s weird demands sometimes wounded his performance. Stacey Tappen, Summer Hassan and Peabody Southwell were excellent as the Queen’s helpful Three Ladies. Brenton Ryan’s Monostatos was good enough to give this puzzling character some real substance. Wilhelm Schwinghammer brought depth and gravitas, along with some lovely singing, to the role of Sarastro. Grant Gershon’s chorus was the production’s sturdy backbone. And, of course, there was James Conlon’s capable conducting.

But the production even managed to besmirch the musical landscape. “The Magic Flute” is an opera with spoken dialogue — which admittedly can challenge some singers’ acting skills. Andrade, Kosky and Barritt replaced this dialogue with silent film titles. These they chose to accompany with snippets of piano music, a la a 1920s movie theater. Unfortunately, they picked snippets of perhaps Mozart’s greatest single piano piece — the C-minor "Fantasia." It was like chopping up a Chippendale table for firewood. For this "Magic Flute’" reduction production, even a blindfold couldn’t help.

Set build video