The Happy Results of a Speedy Shift

From The New York Times, November 25 2013

LOS ANGELES — Who knew that the star of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” could be a gangly black cat? In the Los Angeles Opera’s irresistible new production, which opened on Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion here, the mischievous bird catcher Papageno has traded feathers for a feline that leaps from tree to tree, fends off angry dogs and gets captured in a bell jar, radiating charisma all the while.

Oh, I forgot to mention that, like everything in this “Magic Flute” besides the singers, the charming cat is merely a cartoon projected on a flat screen. The human performers, their faces painted silent-film white, don’t run the show here; they are fitted into a fanciful vision of animation from the 1920s. The three boys who guide Papageno and the prince Tamino on their journey seem to pop out of a basket held aloft by enormous moths. The head of the soprano Erika Miklosa, singing the Queen of the Night’s stratospheric high notes, looks as if it’s been planted atop an enormous spider with writhing, piercing claws.

So clever is the concept, by Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, the principals of the British theater group 1927, and their co-director Barrie Kosky, and so precise the execution that all of this imagery is persuasive. Both the humor and seriousness of “The Magic Flute” are done full justice by the production’s gleefully yet gently macabre aesthetic. (If you know the classic Disney short “The Skeleton Dance,” you get the idea.)

Monostatos, the Moorish servant who wants the captive princess Pamina for himself, is made up as F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Tamino’s magic flute has been reimagined as a fairy trailing musical notes, reminiscent of some hyperactive sequences from Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge.” As Christopher Koelsch, the company’s president and chief executive, said in an interview, the production is an ideal marriage of Weimar and Hollywood: of Berlin, where the production originated this year at the adventurous Komische Oper, and Los Angeles.

This time last year, there were no plans to bring it here. The Los Angeles Opera had scheduled a fifth revival of its well-liked 1993 Peter Hall production of “The Magic Flute.” But Mr. Koelsch was tipped off to the Berlin version and traveled there to see it in January, where he became convinced it was right for his company. “It felt like it would be a terrible missed opportunity if we didn’t pursue it,” he said.

He got James Conlon, the music director here and the “Flute” conductor, and Plácido Domingo, the general manager, on board. The enterprising Minnesota Opera was already interested in the show, so the two companies joined forces — and budgets — to bring it to America; it opens in Minnesota in April.

While it’s not unheard-of for a theater to change productions with little time to spare, it’s usually an unhappy necessity rather than a deliberate choice. But the Los Angeles Opera’s late switch — this new “Flute” was not officially announced until June — should be a positive example for the opera world, where artistic choices can be encased in amber up to five years in advance. Companies should be eagerly looking for new singers and stagings that can be presented in a matter of months rather than years. (O.K., I’d accept maybe a year or two.)

This new “Flute” shows that the results can be worth the rush and risk. Few things tend to get stale more quickly than animated projections, but this production stays miraculously fresh, sustaining surprise and delight in its two and a half hours. There is a steady influx of new images, from the solemn parade of mechanical animals in front of Sarastro’s temple to the flowers that grow when Pamina waters the ground with Papageno’s tears during their duet, “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen.” Fetching men and women, representing the mates for whom the singers long, emerge from the blooms.

But I agreed with my guest at the performance when she said, joking only a little, that Papageno’s cat was the only character with which she felt an emotional connection. The production’s most radical intervention is to remove the opera’s dialogue and replace it with cleverly rendered intertitles — underscored, as if at a silent film, by excerpts from two of Mozart’s keyboard fantasias.

The idea is legitimate and in keeping with the overall concept, but it has a chilly effect. The opera takes on the feel of a hit parade, a concert with dazzling visuals but a lack of heart; it was easy to be impressed but harder to care. As always in “The Magic Flute,” the hapless, endearing Papageno has it easiest in terms of audience sympathy; particularly with an adorable tabby in tow, the steady-voiced baritone Rodion Pogossov, forlorn in a mustard-color suit, savvily earned attention.

The rising soprano Janai Brugger, tone creamy and phrasing elegant, found feeling within the constraints of the production’s stylization, her hair in an Expressionist-era Louise Brooks bob and her body flinching eloquently under the burden of Pamina’s suffering. Attempting his first Tamino, the tenor Lawrence Brownlee had more trouble than she did asserting personality, with singing that was classy but staid. (The company deserves great credit for casting a black romantic leading couple, still extremely unusual in opera.) Mr. Conlon led a performance, and particularly a radiant chorus, whose liveliness matched the show’s energy, propulsive even when meditative.

Shortcomings and all, this production points the way toward a freer, more experimental style of producing opera, even in a mainstream context. It’s true there are limitations on what might be possible in an age of caution. As Mr. Koelsch said, “I don’t think you want the reputation of your company being, so freewheeling that you can’t make a decision.”

But there is lots of middle ground between being indecisive and being stodgy. If companies can make this kind of agility an integral part of their missions, and get their donors on board for the ride, there is no reason occasions like this ingenious “Magic Flute” need be rarities.

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