Review: LA Opera’s ‘The Magic Flute’ Is a Sumptuously Imaginative Treat
The following review is based on the Saturday, November 16th opening night performance of LA Opera’s “The Magic Flute,” in which So Young Park played the part of the Queen of the Night. Due to an illness, Park has unfortunately left the production and has been replaced by Jeni Houser for the five remaining performances.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is probably on the Mount Rushmore of all-time great operas, and LA Opera’s 2019 production of the 228-year-old German masterwork (now playing on select dates through December 15th) rises beyond imagination to deliver a spectacle like no other. For the third time in six years, directors Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade have ingeniously presented the opera as a silent film at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, replacing the spoken dialogue (as it is originally a singspiel, which mixes songs with conversation) with text titles. This conceit and the inclusion of metaphysical settings are projected onto a white backdrop featuring several revolving doors.
Audiences not well-versed in opera lore may recognize snippets of certain arias, particularly the two belonging to the Queen of the Night, who is tasked with singing preternaturally high notes that electrify the observer, essentially causing one’s hair to stand on end. From the incredibly high-degree-of-difficulty vocalizations, which transcend an ordinary human aptitude, to amazingly distinctive animated projections by Paul Barritt, and the most extraordinary scenery and 1920’s-era costumes by Esther Bialas, “The Magic Flute” simply translates to a wondrous experience. Laughter, awe, and fulfillment are only some of the emotions one can expect when experiencing this whimsical and allegorical odyssey unfold.
The first-class creative partnership between Kosky, Andrade, and Barritt, in conjunction with the conducting superpowers of LA Opera’s own James Conlon (Grant Gershon will conduct on December 1st, 12th, and 15th), has undoubtedly contributed to an extravaganza that is not just musically characterized by its mostly woodwind instruments, but one that melds human nature with astoundingly abstract settings that pop with cinematic technicolor. As characters interact with their otherworldly environments, audiences find themselves in the midst between the real and surreal in this Komische Oper Berlin production. Needless to say, it is a sight to behold flesh-and-blood characters, with alabaster-powdered faces, relate to cartoon illustrations in a manner that is vividly urgent and timing-dependent right down to the millisecond.
The high-minded, Masonic-influenced premise (libretto is by Emanuel Schikaneder) is at once conventional and yet gratifyingly outlandish just the same. It follows the male protagonist and handsome prince, Tamino, who, upon being saved from a perilous entanglement with a serpent by three ladies representing the enigmatic Queen of the Night, is asked a favor in return: to save the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, from the captive coils of the sorcerer, Sarastro.
The wandering, cheerful, and lonely bird catcher, Papageno, enters this arrangement by happenstance and becomes Tamino’s comedic sidekick as the two embark on their adventure and come face to face with not only Sarastro, but his loyal sentinel, Monostatos. Of course, the destined love birds, Tamino and Pamina, cross paths, but the fate of their union (and Papageno’s destiny) becomes contingent on passing three trials of fortitude ordered by Sarastro, who is not quite wicked like the audience is initially led to believe. The opera very much has an easy-to-follow arc and delightfully plays into elements of fantasy, assisted by breathtaking visual and auditory cues, which makes the presentation enjoyable to a wide spectrum of people and ages.
Similar to recent LA Opera productions, “The Magic Flute” continues the tradition of spotlighting new and young talent, setting the stage for the next generation of opera greats. For instance, of the cast of 14, three are making their LA Opera debut (including the leads, Bogdon Volkov and Zuzana Marková), five are current members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, and four are alumni.
Attendees experience the quest to save Pamina largely from the standpoint of the tuxedoed Tamino, who is played by Volkov, a spectacular tenor (Joshua Wheeker will inhabit the role on December 12th and 15th). Equipped as he is by his predicament-saving magic flute, symbolized here by a projected pixie, Tamino still undergoes much adversity in an opera that is, in essence, about pushing through to earn knowledge and love. Volkov is highly effective at conveying the motivation of his character to be with Pamina, beginning with the number, “This image is enchantingly beautiful” (upon being shown her portrait). By communicating through evocative body language and his euphonious voice, Volkov is simply tremendous in carrying out what is asked of him.
The same can be said for Tamino’s partner in crime, the Buster Keaton-esque Papageno, who is bestowed anthropomorphized human female magic bells (also projected). He is portrayed by baritone Theo Hoffman, whose physicality on stage is not only larger than life, but contributes to much of the opera buffa’s hilarity. Enough can’t be said about Hoffman’s depiction of the “simple” Papageno, who loves his wine, women, and his pet cat. The performer blends uncannily into this world with on-cue facial expressions and a harmonious interplay with his fantastical environment, which yields uproarious results, like when he tries so hard to resist roasted turkeys during the trial of temptation and when he drinks merrily before riding a feminized pink elephant during “A girl or a woman.” But like many funny men, unfortunately, Papageno harbors a debilitating sadness stemming from not having a mate, and Hoffman is able to seamlessly pivot between such drama and comedy.
Czech soprano Zuzana Marková, who impressively made her opera debut at age 16, is an iconoclast of fashion as Pamina, who has a bob-like cut and is dressed in black ensembles with white trim. It is a persona visually reminiscent of silent film star Louise Brooks, whose temperament – which alters between a girded inner strength and an artistic vulnerability – is channeled here. In addition, Marková’s emotive timbre is ideal for the role, as it imbues the events surrounding Pamina with a palpable humanity, whether she’s singing a flowery duet about the natural rules of romance with Papageno (“In men, who feel love”), or performing solo in “Ah, I feel it, it is vanished,” when her Pamina is beset by the pangs of love, under the illusion that she has been spurned by Tamino.
So Young Park reprises the Queen of the Night, best described here as an amoral skeletal spider lady, who, with her endlessly long legs, holds dominion over the proceedings. The Queen is definitely not one to be scorned, as she will weave a web of retribution around her quarry. Park again performs a forceful, spine-tingling rendition of the coloratura-brimming aria heard ‘round the world (“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”), going deep into her soprano playbook to hit the high F with razor-sharp precision. Although this and Act I’s “Oh, tremble not, my beloved son” are her shining moments, the ominousness of Park’s Queen is felt even when she is not present. It should also be said that the Queen’s conniving henchwomen (Erica Petrocelli, Vivien Shotwell, and Taylor Raven) are quite the potent triumvirate and are hysterical from the time they appear in the first scene and strive to vie for Tamino’s affection, sending their (animated) bursting hearts his way.
The sagacious high priest, Sarastro, has a formidable presence thanks to Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, a basso-cantabile whose stout voice, highlighted in two pieces in Act II, gives the top-hatted character a considerable cachet. On the other hand, the guardian of his temple, Monostatos, is a lustful, rapacious, and vampiric delineation of Nosferatu, who has his wolfish slaves do his bidding. Nonetheless, Monostatos is one of the most dastardly fun characters to watch skulk on stage – a direct reflection of Frederick Ballentine’s overflowing charisma. There is a memorable scene concurrent with “All feel the joys of love,” when Ballentine’s creepy Monostatos is in bed with a sleeping Pamina (pictured above), which is also notable for the fact that the animation is laid out in such a way that the audience feels like they’re viewing the two from up above as opposed to directly across.
Finally, the butterfly-winged spirit guides (David Kakuk, Anika Erickson, and Thomas Quinn Fagan), all of whom have been affiliates of the Los Angeles Children’s Orchestra, leave a darling impression, as does soprano Sarah Vautour, who is adorable in her own right as the bubbly Papagena. Michael J. Hawk lends his distinguished voice to the Speaker of the Temple in Act I, whose rhetoric challenges Tamino’s initial opinion of Sarastro.
There are several reasons why the LA Opera has revived the Kosky-Andrade-Barritt version of “The Magic Flute” yet again, not the least of which is the vision that encompasses a smorgasbord of innovative designs, rich colors, and fantasy-fueled scenery that complements the characters so smoothly. Not to be forgotten, however, is that Mozart’s ageless music is the oxygen to the body of this production’s visual artistry, which Conlon surgically oversees with a stirring mastery.
For more information about LA Opera’s 2019 production of “The Magic Flute,” and to purchase tickets, please visit: