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). Ger­manspeak­ing 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-orl-ess 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 i s 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 f leetly. 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 f i ft h move­ments, i n 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 well­honed 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 f luegel­horn 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.

Jonathan Michie in

Die Zauber­flöte

Ben Bliss in LA Opera’s

Die Zauber­flöte

Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall

Gus­tavo Du­damel,

mu­sic di­rec­tor, Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic

Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall

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