The Curious Case of Silent Opera
Full disclosure: I am not a music critic nore do I pretend to be one. This blog post is inspired by my visit to the LA opera last Thursday where I saw Barrie Kosky's production of The Magic Flute. The spectacular creation of the Australian director has been both praised and criticized since its premiere in Berlin in 2012 but I only found out about it recently. Needless to say, I was excited to finally see it live.
First, about the production. Yes, spectacular it was. Created in the style of a silent movie, the set consists of a giant screen that covers the entire stage from floor to ceiling with the computer-animated images projected onto it. The singers make their entrances through the openings in the screen about 50 feet up above the stage and very rarely come down to the floor during the show. I wonder if the only criteria for choosing the cast was their strong equilibrium. But we'll save this for later. The computer graphics here are of brilliant colors and incredibly creative. In the scene where Pamina and Papageno are running away from evil Monostatos, it looks like they are running over the rooftops which saves the scene from the usual static feel when they are both singing "we are running, we are running" but in fact, they are just standing on stage. There were a few scenes like that throughout the show where the usual operatic conventionalism was saved by modern technology from turning into total boredom. I have to admit that the amination was incredibly well done.
That said, in my humble opinion, it was also spectacularly misused. The two most important components of any opera are singing and acting. In this production, acting was annihilated in its entirety. The singers didn't have to even move on stage let alone interact with each other for most of the show with very little exception. The walking and acting were done for them by the animation. The dialogs, for the most part, were taken out of the score and projected onto the screen, as they would in a real silent movie, briefly summarised and translated into English and accompanied by a honky-tonk piano playing the fragments from random Mozarts compositions, mainly from his Fantasy for piano in D Minor. Not only very important parts of the opera were brutally cut out, the D minor key not always corresponded with the key of the next aria in the opera, and at times singers had literally one measure of the orchestral intro to switch back to the key they had to be in. Musically, the opera was cut down to "the greatest hits". Visually, by the end of the first act, my eyes were already popping out of their orbits from all the colors and images on stage while my brain was struggling to process them, and by the end of the opera, I felt like a total zombie. I could hardly remember any music.
Actually, at times, it was hard to hear it since, in their determination to demonstrate their mad skills, the animators and the director created a hilarious side story of the digital creatures and the audience kept bursting into laughter right in the middle of the arias and duets. Don't get me wrong, I am all for operas being entertaining, and just like you, I am sick and tired of stifling dusty old fashioned classical productions. The story of The Magic Flute is so ridiculous, to begin with, it simply cries out for being light and funny and easy to watch. But there is time and place for jokes, and this is still an opera which implies music, and when I am not allowed to hear it because all the tourists who came to see the lighting of the Christmas tree at the Grove and stop by the opera house are laughing on top of their lungs, I get frustrated.
There were some really weird things going on on the screen at times, like the magic bells, also animated, looked like little red flowers with legs - something of a marriage of Disney and Escher; the Queen of the night was turned into a giant (digital) knife-throwing spider; the flute was represented by a white-colored naked creature flying across the screen pooping out musical notes along the way; while Papageno was dreaming of food he was deprived of, the audience was presented with the images of live chickens walking in line across the screen, looking directly at us, then walking into the oven and coming out of it cooked on a platter. This procession brought up a painful associating with some kind of a chicken Auschwitz, and the rest of the show was just lost on me. For some unknown reason, Papageno had a cat companion which was probably the cutest and the most memorable part of this odd production but I could never figure out what it was doing there in the first place.
As for the singing, it was plain embarrassing. Kudos to Jeni Houser who replaced the South Korean soprano So Young Parks due to her sickness. That said, Ms. Houser's voice could only reach the 10th raw of the orchestra seat, where I was, on the very top notes. The rest of her two arias was completely drowned out by the orchestra that was desperately holding back as it was. Sloppy coloraturas, unstable intonation throughout, and only two out of four high Fs she managed to sing on-pitch were just not enough for me to join in the defining round of applause she was awarded.
Russian soprano Zuzana Markova who made her debut with LA opera in this production as Pamina had the best projection of all singers. Her powerful soprano undoubtedly reached the very last row of this pretty sizable opera house. That said, I am not sure it was such a good thing. Ms. Markova's voice had one of the widest and most unpleasant wobbles I've ever heard. In fact, her wobble was so wide that it was difficult to identify the pitch. This young soprano who sings leading roles like Violetta, Amina, Lucia, and Zerlina all over the world has already a huge vocal issue on her hands.
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Sarastro simply didn't have the low register necessary for this part. I have no clue why he was cast in this role in the first place and I felt terrible for him watching his struggle with every phrase of his famous aria and the rest of the ensembles.
The Three Ladies had a rough start as the Second Lady couldn't get the first note out. I didn't punish her for that in my head hoping it would get better. It did but not much. All three of them had pretty wide vibratos and singing tight three-part harmony was difficult for them. Lady number one, the soprano, just couldn't get her pitch together which was especially obvious when she was singing on her own; Lady number three was the most stable of all - thank you, god, somebody had to take for the team!
Joshua Wheeker as Tamino sang his part diligently, like a good conservatory student, all pretty evenly loud with minimal nuances and a complete lack of personality.
Poor Three Spirits, three adorable adolescent singers, were so quiet that it took all my brainpower to hear them at all. Why they were not given mics to reinforce the projection escapes me and makes no sense. It felt like they were set up for a failure while, of all ensembles, their blend was the best.
The little light in this dark tunnel was Theo Hoffman as Papageno. With his small but pretty bright voice, he was able to get through his aria (that was moved from the first act to the end of the second for no apparent reason) rather successfully, and for being trapped in a silent movie situation he carved out for himself a few moments to show off his acting chops.
As for Frederic Ballentinet as Monostatos, besides the giant evil mask that he had to deal with the whole show, I can't recall much. Given, it's a very small role but the young student who did this part in the Santa Monica College production last year was a much better singer and most definitely a very memorable actor.
To be honest, I felt a little insulted. The director simply decided that we the audience cannot possibly handle the entire opera and had to give us a shorter version of it without the dialogs and we also had to have bright digital visuals to be more entertained and stay in our seats.
Well, I stayed. My fabulous seat was a present of generous friends and I got to hang out with them at the Founder's lounge during the intermission and had a glass of the greatest scotch. It made it all worth it and I ended up having a wonderful time!
As for the opera itself, good thing it's over.
And oh, by the way, there was no flute on stage.