Birdman of LA: Die Zauberflöte

All opera goers know Papageno, the sidekick in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) who blunders right and left and, through no particular virtue of his own, ends up getting the girl of his dreams, just as leading man Tamino does. He introduces himself to the audience in his very first line: “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” (I am the bird catcher, yes indeed). German-speaking audiences of the 18th century would have recognized him as a well-established type, since characters who were half-bird and half-man appeared often in Viennese popular theater, signifying an unsophisticated “child of nature.” These stock characters were always dressed pretty much the same, too, with a preponderance of green and with feathers more or less prominent in the costume. Today the tradition is long forgotten apart from Papageno (whose name more-or-less translates as “parrot” as in the Spanish papagayo), and few modern opera directors would feel bound to underscore the allusion even if they were aware of it. And yet, some of us wonder, wouldn’t it be nice if our Papagenos could be portrayed with something that was both original and still “bird catcherish”?

It can be done, and a clever solution is offered in the production of Die Zauberflöte directed by Barrie Kosky (intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin) and Suzanne Andrade (co-founder of the theatrical enterprise named 1927). Introduced in 2012 in Berlin, it has been mounted in a number of houses since then. Having seen it last August at the Edinburgh International Festival, I wasted no time securing seats when I saw that it was headed this season to LA Opera, where it had previously scored a hit in 2013 and where I caught it during its return run on March 2.

Director Andrade and animator Paul Barritt founded 1927 to create theatrical productions in which live acting merges with projected film animation, particularly with film redolent of the style popular around 1927, say along the lines of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Many theaters and opera houses are now using projections in their presentations, sometimes quite effectively. Indeed, Santa Fe Opera enhanced its capacity for film projections in the recent physical upgrading of its theater, and we will doubtless be seeing more integration of film with live stage action in coming seasons there. But 1927 has been exploring the possibilities more deeply than any other group I know of, mounting productions that add up to a true Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork in which the elements are profoundly intertwined and in perfect balance. In this Zauberflöte, most of the singers spend far less of their time moving about the stage than they would in traditional productions, instead delivering their parts while standing practically motionless within an environment of ever-moving projections. We never see more of the Queen of the Night than her head, for example — a head that, from the audience’s perspective, is attached to a frightening spider’s body that casts blood-red daggers at the Queen’s web-imprisoned daughter, Pamina, and expands to huge proportions in the twinkling of an eye, all done with projections while the opera singer portraying the character pops out all those high Fs. In the opening tableau, Tamino (a Chaplinesque figure here) is pursued by a fearsome snake. The snake — sometimes presented as a dragon — is usually not all that frightening, but in 1927’s version, it is a nightmarish animated image, its flame-orange head and implacable eyes gradually overtaking Tamino from behind as he desperately dashes through some vaguely defined forest. Of course, no tenor could deliver a decent Mozartian line while running at top speed; here Tamino gets away with just moving his arms and upper body, which is plenty hard enough, while standing behind a screen onto which are projected his legs in full sprint. One of the Three Ladies is a nicotine fiend, and she puffs out smoke rings (animated, naturally) that waft heavenward; so do the throbbing hearts that emanate from the loving couples who manage to pair up in the course of the opera. Sarastro, the Queen’s nemesis, lives in a world of science, which here can take the form of a jungle of equations, elevators traveling through layers of archaeological debris to the center of the earth, and a mechanized menagerie of creatures skeletonized through X-rays.

And Pagapeno? Let’s face it: The days are gone when the archetype of the “birdman” can be expected to resonate with viewers. But we still have bird catchers among us. We call them cats. In this production, sidekick Papageno is himself accompanied by a sidekick, an animated black cat who is never far from his ankles, a symbol of bird-catching that we moderns can easily recognize. One could never convince an actual cat to cooperate onstage to the degree required, but animation opens up even feline possibilities.

A big problem with Die Zauberflöte is that it is a Singspiel, a form of popular theater that mixes the musical sections with long expanses of play acting with spoken dialogue — sort of like most Broadway musicals. This is problematic even for modern German-speaking audiences. For audiences outside Teutonic lands, it can be fatal, since the translations are nearly always stodgy and opera singers rarely rise to great heights as thespians. The 1927 production grapples with this brilliantly by simply eliminating those spoken passages and reassigning the essential plot information they convey to silent-film depictions, sometimes with projected inter-titles. These segments are accompanied by bits of non-Zauberflöte Mozart, passages from his fantasias for solo piano, and everything moves along fleetly. Instead of dreading the esthetic traffic jams these sections usually seem to be, one actually looks forward to them. Certainly that was the case with the Los Angeles audience, who were primed for film to begin with.

Opera overtures have largely become a background to all sorts of staged pantomime, and one might have anticipated that it would have proved unavoidable in a filmic production such as this. Mirabile dictu, they let this magnificent overture stand on its own, led firmly by James Conlon, the company’s artistic director. Its pace seemed rather relaxed, but in retrospect one realized that it fit with the tempo of what would follow; and since what followed needed to synchronize to the pace of the film, a conductor wouldn’t be able to do much about altering it. The cast was worthy, with soprano Marita Sølberg (her depiction derived from Louise Brooks) proving an affecting Pamina, and tenor Ben Bliss displaying a vibrant, centered tone infused with ardent expressivity that was most welcome in the role of Tamino. He will appear at Santa Fe Opera this summer in Strauss’ Capriccio, in the part of Flamand; and between now and then, he’ll be singing Belmonte in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) at the Metropolitan Opera. Another familiar face from Santa Fe was the production’s Papageno: baritone Jonathan Michie, a former apprentice artist who appeared in secondary roles in several productions here. He sang heartily, his character being inspired by Buster Keaton. The rest of the cast was not quite at the same level. Soprano So Young Park was a precise Queen of the Night but did not really “act” through her voice — which, being an immobile character, was all she had to act with in this production; and bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer was a disengaged Sarastro. In their defense, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which the LA Opera inhabits, is a cavernous space that is hard to conquer.

All the old familiar places: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3

The next night found me next door, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic took on Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 under the baton of its music and artistic director, Gustavo Dudamel. This is among the most imposing masterworks in the orchestral literature — running beyond an hour and a half, it is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire — and dynamic Dudamel infused his reading with variety, specificity, power, and passion. I found myself focusing more on momentary delights than on the longer trajectory, although by the fourth and fifth movements, in which mezzo-soprano soloist Tamara Mumford and then the Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus added their well-honed voices, one did sense a sort of inevitable progression from the nature painting of the earlier movements. The finale is an instrumental slow movement that evolved out of music identified in Mahler’s draft as “What Love Tells Me”; after he excised that identifier, he would maintain, more simply, “In the Adagio, the final movement, everything is resolved into tranquility and being.” In Dudamel’s reading, it tugged at the heartstrings, with Mahler’s rich voicing of a melody that would later be transformed (knowingly or not) by Sammy Fain into the song “I’ll Be Seeing You” completely enveloping the soul. That said, there is a great deal of solo playing in this symphony, and not all of the Los Angeles Philharmonic principals were particularly impressive in their spotlighted moments. There were a few exceptions, though, including longtime concertmaster Martin Chalifour, who dispatched the violin solos with elegance and panache, and Burt Hara, the orchestra’s associate principal clarinetist (the principal’s chair being currently vacant), who was spot on in all his featured moments. Also deserving special applause was principal trumpet Thomas Hooten, who played the extended solos for what Mahler called a posthorn. Since an actual posthorn — the old-time instrument used by mail-delivery personnel — lacks valves, it cannot actually play this part. A fluegelhorn is often used in imitation, but Hooten played it here on a cornet, its tone simultaneously gleaming and benevolent as it wafted in from somewhere offstage, apparently in the rear of the hall.

The auditorium was a full participant in the performance. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry and inaugurated in 2003, is simply one of the great performance spaces of the world. As we have written about its physical beauty in these columns previously, there is no need to go through the details again. Although it has a seating capacity of 2,265, the space seems intimate, with the audience dispersed among numerous relatively small seating areas, and the design always draws in one’s attention in a way that fosters coziness rather than claustrophobia. Throughout the performance of Mahler’s Third, one sensed almost palpably how the room embraced the orchestra, the undulations of its interior architecture reflecting sound in a way that both clarified projection and enriched the timbre. It is a pleasure to spend time in this hall, which is a masterpiece of both visual and acoustic art. ◀

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