The genius of the Minnesota Opera's 'Magic Flute'
I'm a little late to the party with the 1927 (that's the name of a theater company) staging of Mozart's The Magic Flute, as realized by the Minnesota Opera. The first version of 1927's Magic Flute premiered in Berlin in 2012, and a Minnesota Opera version — which I missed — first ran last season. Still, all the plaudits in the world didn't fully prepare me for this remarkable synthesis of stagecraft and animation, which is back at the Ordway for an encore run that ends Nov. 22.
The opera's set is quite literally a blank space: a white wall from behind which the performers emerge — sometimes suspended high above the stage — via rotating doors. Projected onto that wall are stunning animations designed by Paul Barritt, who co-founded 1927 with theater artist Suzanne Andrade. The animations depict much of the action (in some cases, performers' heads are the only parts of their actual bodies that are visible) as wall as showing the changing settings and presenting text that serves the function of recitative.
The result is something halfway between on-stage and on-screen, which is a clever idea — but one that could easily have been executed without distinction. What makes this Magic Flute such a stunner is how thoroughly it demonstrates the possibilities of this new fusion — with wit, detail, and an almost outrageous technical facility.
The staging, led by stage director Tobias Ribitzki and conductor Michael Christie, is inspired by the silent-film era — and part of its genius is importing the aesthetic and conventions of the silent-film medium to opera, which shares more characteristics with silent film than you might have previously considered. For starters, both are text-driven: unless you speak German, you're following Emanuel Shikaneder's libretto via supertitles. Also, both feature almost continuous music of high drama (and/or high comedy).
The basic idea, then, of presenting an opera as if it were a silent film works like a charm — but the real magic comes in the inventiveness of Barritt's animations, and the enormous team effort it must have taken to fuse them with live performances. The computer-aided animations evoke influences from Victorian illustrations to Yellow Submarine, and each scene is imagined distinctly. The on-screen cabinet of wonders includes drunken elephants, a roasted-chicken factory, a forest of Papageno's birds, and a fire-breathing monster who ingests a fairy (representing the eponymous musical instrument, the show's one conceit that might be a bridge too far).
A challenge of opera as a genre — particularly for new audiences — is that those who don't come to the theater prepared to fully engage with the music are sometimes challenged by the fact that operas' narratives (often, as in this case, exceedingly complex and relying on long-ago assumptions about audiences' knowledge of reference points) proceed in stops and starts. Who among us — even the biggest opera fans — hasn't looked up at a surtitle thinking, "Is he still singing about...yep, that's still what he's going on about"?
Barritt's animations do what Fantasia did for instrumental orchestral music: provide a visual companion that's both wildly imaginative and closely attuned to the details of the score, in a manner that helps to highlight the richness and variety of this classic opera.
You wouldn't want this to be your only Magic Flute — there's such a profusion of visual stimuli to fascinate the eye that the dynamic Mozart wrote for, where the music bore much of the responsibility for driving the action, is somewhat upended — but having finally seen it, I certainly wouldn't want to be without it.