What happens when a feisty young Los Angeles opera director mixes Mozart’s cherished “The Magic Flute” — so beloved that all three of Berlin’s opera companies keep it in repertory year in and year out — with manga and marionette theater? He then throws in some heavy German philosophy (à la Walter Benjamin) and a pinch of Buddhism on top of heaping helpings of feminism and other contemporary social concerns.
What happens, furthermore, when dialogue between the songs is read by children, their pre-recorded voices floating in an electronic soundscape, while the characters onstage remain expressionless?
What reportedly did happen on opening night last month of Yuval Sharon’s controversial-to-say-the-least new production of “Die Zauberflöte,” to give its proper German title, is this: An enraged Staatsoper audience began booing during the first act, and critics pretty much agreed that Berlin’s most important opera company had an unthinkable disaster musically, theatrically, visually and, most of all, conceptually. The Financial Times gave it no stars.
After Sharon, the emerging Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra came in for particular shaming. She was said to be incapable of something so basic as keeping the overture’s three opening chords together, let alone of synchronizing the orchestra with the singers.
Sharon, who is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s artist-collaborator, high-tailed it out of town after opening night to oversee Janet Cardiff’s Walt Disney Concert Hall art installation, another of the orchestra’s centennial season innovations.
So let me tell you what happened at the Staatsoper on Friday night during the fourth outing for the production, which runs through March 16: There were a couple of boos and a bit of annoyance expressed by older patrons. But the house was full and the audience included the young and stylish. Parents had children in tow. Most — young and old — demonstrated a fascinated enthusiasm, even wild enthusiasm. The children were downright enthralled. Curtain calls for De la Parra were as lively as was her rhythmically original conducting.
Sorry, old-timers and critics, but it’s time to pack up your invective and go home. Sharon’s “Flute” is a hit.
I suppose I have my issues. I often do with Sharon’s productions. But they are frankly beside the point. If opera is to have a future, this “Flute” — love it or hate it — is where to begin.
It is true that if you walk into this production cold, not having read Sharon’s essay in the program (or, worse, having been prejudiced by the reviews), you will be taken aback. If you are not well versed in some of the cultural icons Sharon limns and you have no youngster around to explain them, you’d best brush up on your manga or expect to be bewildered big time.
The sets (by American designer and MacArthur fellow Mimi Lien), costumes (by Walter Van Beirendonck), acting and flying are truly weird. Members of the cast are attached to large ropes, and whether with feet on the stage floor or lifted aloft, they move as though puppets on strings.
Tamino, the young prince (a jubilant Julian Prégardien) who finds himself in a magic land, is dressed like Astro Boy, the Japanese manga android character. That means he wears large comic-book red booties and has a distinctive artificial wave of hair glued on his head. He looks totally ridiculous. Pamina (the winning Anna Prohaska) is his twin.
Papageno, everybody’s favorite common-man comic bird catcher, is played by a comic actor, Florian Teichtmeister, who is not an opera singer. Dazzling, ever-changing backdrops, which look like paintings you might see in an edgy gallery in Berlin’s Neukölln district, but better.
The three women who first guide Tamino are a single entity with three bare breasts and peg legs. Monostatos, the nasty blackamoor (a growling Florian Hoffmann), is a wind-up toy. Three lion cutouts guarding Sarastro in his temple and illuminated by small klieg lights might well have been snatched from the MGM lot. (Sharon’s last opera production, after all, was John Cage’s “Europeras 1 & 2” for the L.A. Phil set on a Sony Studio stage with film props.)
Some of the greatest ridicule for the production stems from what happens following all this weirdness and their fantastical fire and water ordeals: Tamino and Pamina find marital bliss in a quotidian apartment kitchen.
But go with the flow, and this proves quite moving. Through Mozart’s music, androids become human. Even more compelling is the final image, in which children are seen as puppeteers of the whole spectacle, lording over a miniature marionette theater.
And then there is the music. Opening night obviously had its issues. Making this work, especially with all the flying and the masks, is no easy matter. Prohaska had taken ill and had a last-minute replacement. Nervousness was all around.
But by Friday, the cast appeared comfortable in the air and in those clunky costumes. Other singers were game and good, if not maybe the stellar songbirds Berliners are accustomed to. Teichtmeister’s comedy added a curiously appropriate homey touch, and he managed fine in his sung-spoken style. (Mozart’s original Papageno was an actor.)
The opening three chords of the orchestra were together, thank you very much. The synchronization between the flying singers and the pit, on the other hand, was not perfect at first, and I took that as the way it was meant to be. Androids and celestial orchestra are different realms that only slowly merge.
More important, De la Parra, a late replacement for Franz Welser-Möst, who required knee surgery and had to drop out, brought a Latin accent to rhythms. The pacing was fast. For all Sharon’s many-layered delving into the ramifications of marionettes in German philosophy and his quoting Buddha (Man is puppet in the hands of nature), this is no staging for lingering. De la Parra’s spunk was exactly what the production needed.
One final thought about this “Flute”: Mozart not only infuses comic-book androids with life but also turns on young people in the audience to the music. Guardians of fossilized tradition please take note and maybe even take pleasure.