REVIEW: The Magic Flute (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Irene Corbett

[Making Mozart Proud]

Bold and engaging, The Magic Flute is for opera lovers and newcomers alike – just mind the sting in the tale.

This staging of Mozart and Schikaneder’s Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) is directed by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade, with animation by Paul Barritt, and musical direction by Jordan de Souza and Hendrik Vestmann. Having received world-wide acclaim this spectacular collaboration between the Komische Oper Berlin and London based theatre company 1927 has made it to our shores accompanied by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Die Zauberflote is not my favourite opera. Much like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream it suffers from being over performed and is often mistakenly treated as children’s theatre. Die Zauberflote belongs to the Singspiel genre meaning the libretto is partially sung and partially spoken. Mozart wrote it with particular performers in mind, a mixture of operatic singers and professional actors. As a result some roles require particular ranges and technical proficiency, while other roles require professional acting skills.

In addition, the premiere production was in collaboration with Schikaneder’s theatre troupe which was known for outrageous special effects, chiefly fire and water effects. Die Zauberflote is a difficult opera to stage as it was essentially a showcase for the technical abilities of a very specific set of people.

Director Barrie Kosky resisted staging any form of Die Zauberflote for some years and it wasn’t until he saw the 1927’s debut production Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea that he saw a way to overcome the opera’s challenges.

1927 specialise in combining performance and live music with animation and film creating a unique filmic form of theatre. In working with 1927 and their love of silent film, Kosky was able to sidestep a number of the problems which plague staging the work. Where Schikaneder’s libretto alternates between aria and spoken script, The Magic Flute sees these spoken sections replaced by animations of placards or title cards. The animation also serves to exaggerate core features of Singspiel including (but not limited to) the use of magic, fantastical creatures, and the characterisation of characters as supremely good or intolerably evil. Giant dragons, dancing owls, a slinky black cat, blooming flowers, castles, cliffs, and explosions populate the stage. The animation in this production, I imagine, rivals the special effects created by Schikaneder’s troupe.

These animations were projected onto the stage set which is a white façade set roughly 1.5 meters from the orchestra pit, rising up into the fly loft, and featuring a number of inset revolving doors. There are doors level with the stage and some floating high above with tiny platforms jutting out on which the performers can stand. With the stage space running vertically rather than horizontally you would be hard pressed to find a seat from which you had a bad sightline. The doors provide much delight as they allow performers to appear and disappear seamlessly into the animated surface.

Against this imposing backdrop, the performers are far more visible in the shallow stage than in a more traditional staging. This demanded a higher level of engaged physicality than an opera singer is usually required to produce on stage.  Embedded in a world heavily influenced by silent film, The Magic Flute relies on comic timing and physical control in order for the performers to interact with the animations and to maintain the audience’s focus in amongst a huge variety of visual stimuli.

Amongst the general hubbub of the audience enjoying The Magic Flute last night I heard a woman sitting close to me laugh bitterly and sigh ‘Oh, God.’ when a racist stereotype was played out onstage. While the trope of the ‘evil Moor’ should be a relic of the past, it was the one fly in the ointment of an otherwise impressive and inventive production.  

There is very little previous commentary on this aspect of this production of The Magic Flute with critics considering it to be compensated for by the casting of a white singer. I, however, am surprised that the director Barrie Kosky retained this blatantly unpleasant aspect of Schikaneder’s libretto when he considers himself a ‘transformer or interpreter’ rather than a ‘museum director’.

The libretto is, at points, unrepentantly racist. The character of Monostatos is an evil Moorish slave who desires Pamina because she is so pale and white. Traditionally the role has been performed in blackface. Monostatos’ aria consists of bemoaning the fact that he is ‘black and ugly’ and therefore should avoid love. Choosing to turn the character into a Nosferatu-esque villain (read: extra vampiric white) is clearly an attempt to diffuse this history but as the translation of the aria is blazoned across the top of the stage it proves impossible to divorce the modern villain from the racist stereotype.

Surely it would not have been such a stretch to alter the aria when so many liberties, like the omission of all spoken text, had already been taken?

In saying this, Ivan Tursic’s performance of Monostatos was fantastically creepy. He was one of the few characters to acknowledge the audience and his aria granted him the opportunity to build a strong sense of comic villain-hood in the Addams family vein. The costuming and makeup made him an instantly recognisable villain, the image especially familiar in Aotearoa given Taika Waititi’s 2014 film What We Do in the Shadows featured the character Petyr, a Graf Orlok look alike. Tursic’s Monostatos is a fun and effective villain.

While some critics argue the validity of retaining Monostatos’ blackness by comparing him to Othello or Shylock and claiming that his race is integral to the opera, I would point to this production of The Magic Flute as demonstrating that the function and strength of Monostatos as a character is not reliant on his race. American bass Kenneth Kellogg is quoted by the Washington Post on the matter as saying:

— like, there’s a line that says, “I know that your soul is as black as your face.” And the first time that I read that, my heart cringed: oof, do I really want to say that as a black man? Can we get away with changing this? I mean, Monostatos doesn’t have to be. It’s not an integral part of “The Magic Flute” for him to be a person of color. But “Otello,” for me, the tension of the whole story lies in that difference.

I can’t help but agree with him.

Different reviews of the production highlight different performers and so it would appear that the role alone does not determine the quality of the characters but the actor/singer themselves. Joan Martin-Royo as Papageno was a standout at last night’s show. The costume was clearly influenced by Buster Keaton as indicated by the iconic pork-pie hat. Martin-Royo was the master of an expressive and yet controlled comic physicality as required by the Hanswurst (a merry buffoon) tradition from which the character of Papageno is drawn.  The surprise to the routine on Friday night was when Papageno questioned whether or not to hang himself and it became pantomime enough for an audience member to call out ‘Nein!’.

The characters are lovable and the show is incredible to watch. To the opera purists, however, the overwhelming focus on the visual may detract from their enjoyment of Mozart’s music.  

For a genre that is struggling to retain audiences, suffering even more so from accusations of incomprehensibility than perhaps Shakespeare’s works have, it is an exceedingly accessible production. If you are wanting to introduce your children to opera or you are looking for a visual extravaganza then this is the show for you. Though I would strongly recommend a post-show discussion identifying the presence of the racist stereotype and locating it within the historical context.

More like a film than an opera, the music can become secondary to the experience of watching the animations and the performers but like a good film it is a show you could happily watch multiple times. Mozart would have been proud.

The Magic Flute plays at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre until 10 March as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. 

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