|Aaron Blake, Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos, Ezgi Kutlu, and Evan Hughes|
(photo by Stephanie Berger for Lincoln Center)
We avoid reading reviews, talking to other people, and perusing the program notes before a performance so that we can experience each opera with fresh eyes and ears, uninfluenced by the opinions of others. Last night, thanks to the Mostly Mozart Festival, we were thoroughly enchanted by a revolutionary approach to Mozart's 1797 singspiel Die Zauberflöte. We do not use the word "enchanted" lightly. We were transported to a new world, an amalgam of silent film tropes, cartoons, scientific illustrations, live action, animation, and projections.
May we coin a term here? "Imaginuity" might serve. This remarkable production was conceived by the entity 1927 from which Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky Co-Directed, with animation designed by Paul Barritt. Esther Bialas was responsible for Stage and Costume Design and Diego Leetz designed the lighting. It was our first time witnessing live artists interacting with surreal projections. Welcome to the future!
Since opera is all about music, let us begin with that aspect. Maestro Louis Langrée conducted the superb Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with suitable panache. If there were folks in the audience who had never been exposed to Mozart's music, as unlikely as that is, they were surely won over.
The singing was topnotch all around, although there were moments when we thought the voices were lightly amplified. We first heard bass-baritone Evan Hughes at Juilliard Opera in 2012 as Don Alfonso in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte; we wrote about him often over the next couple years, remarking on his mobile face and flair for comedy.
Since then, he has made quite a name for himself abroad so it was particularly exciting for us to see and hear him once more after this lengthy interval. One couldn't ask for a better performance. With costuming and body movement reminiscent of Buster Keaton, he cut quite a figure. His sonorous voice has only gotten deeper and broader. He remains an astonishing performer.
Tenor Aaron Blake has been on our radar for about six years since winning an award with the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. The performances that most stick in our mind are his singing Schubert's "Erlkönig" with impressive coloring of the various voices and his performance of the lead role in Gregory Spears' Fellow Traveler.
Last night he made a winning Tamino, singing earnestly and sweetly. We might add that we would never have recognized either of these two highly admired gentlemen behind all that makeup!
His Pamina was performed by the adorable soprano Vera-Lotte Böckert who was costumed to appear very much like Louise Brooks in a black bob and a black dress with large white collar, white stockings, and black Mary Jane shoes. She invested the role with fine singing and acting, a worthy counterpart to her Prince Tamino.
What shall we say about the Queen of the Night? She was portrayed as a spider catching the unwary in her web and stabbing at them with her 8 spindly legs. It wasn't until the curtain call that we were able to see her face and body. It was hard to believe that all that exciting sound came out of the tiny person of coloratura soprano Aleksandra Olczyk; she has a thrilling sound and very accurate fioritura.
We have never cared for the role of the pompous Sarastro but last night we very much enjoyed him, as portrayed by Wenwei Zhang whose voice descends into the very bottom of the register without any loss of volume or color.
We adored the the Three Ladies, as performed by Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos, and Ezgi Kutlu--dressed in 1930's finery. We always love the scene in which they fight over Prince Tamino; last night they were accompanied by animated hearts; long cigarette holders were used to puncture and deflate the hearts of the other two.
Papagena was played by Talya Lieberman who didn't have much to do but was depicted as filling an animated house with dozens of animated "Papageni". She never appeared as an old crone to fool Papageno. We don't know why that scene was cut.
Costumed and made up like Nosferatu, Johannes Dunz made a creepy Monostatos. We noted that the same audience that tittered over Mozart's sexism had no reaction to his racism!
Although their names are not credited in the program, the Three Boys, members of the Tölzer Boys Choir, were adorable and harmonized beautifully.
In many of the scenes, faces were visible through holes and bodies were created in some kind of projected animation. We have no idea how this was accomplished and didn't even try to figure it out. It was more fun to just accept this aesthetic as a fantasy world in which pink elephants lounged in martini glasses, elevators descended through the circles of hell in the Trial by Fire, and chubby little bathing beauties represented Papageno's magic bells.
We could go on and on describing the many sight gags but let us share just a few more. Tamino gets swallowed by the dragon and is depicted in the belly of the beast surrounded by lots of bones; the Queen of the Night hurls red daggers at Pamina when she wants her to kill Sarastro; when Papagena counts to three before committing suicide, the animation plays a game of "hangman" with each number accompanied by additional strokes.
Dialogue was mostly replaced by silent movie titles. Music was interpolated from other works by Mozart, although at one point we heard music that didn't sound like Mozart at all. All of these alterations served the telling of the tale and we'd like to think that Wolfgang Amadeus would have loved it.
It is difficult to describe something so visually fluid but we consider it a ground-breaking work in the same way as Disney's Fantasia was in the last century. We will happily attend any future performances by 1927. Our sole disappointment was that there were hardly any children in the audience! If any production could initiate youngsters into the world of opera, it would be this one.
(c) meche kroop