Critic's Pick: 'The Magic Flute'

The Cincinnati Opera's re-imagined production of ‘The Magic Flute’ is a must-see.

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click to enlarge Critic's Pick: 'The Magic Flute'
Photo: Philip Groshong
It is Saturday night at the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the audience is buzzing with excitement and anticipation. It is the opening night of Cincinnati Opera’s The Magic Flute.

This is no ordinary run-of-the-mill production of the Mozart opera, which debuted in 1791. It has been re-imagined by the British theater company 1927 to use live performance in conjunction with projected animation, creating an entirely unique and scintillating operatic experience. This production premiered at Komische Oper Berlin in 2012. 

Set in the 1920s Weimar Republic of Germany and performed in German with English supertitles, this retelling of a beloved opera is modeled after silent films, which the members of 1927 clearly love. Essentially, there is no set. Without the projections, what the audience would see is a blank white screen with revolving doorways placed at different levels. The magic comes to life as moving images are shown on the screen around the singers, who then interact with them in surprising and carefully crafted ways under the masterful direction of Daniel Ellis (with Christopher Allen conducting the orchestra).

For example, as the curtain rises, we see the character Prince Tamino with comically flailing arms. His lower torso is hidden behind a small screen with projected legs so that he looks as if he is running at an absurd pace from a giant serpent while he sings his opening lines. At the top of the second act, there is a procession consisting of such strange animated creations as Thomas Edison-esque devices and armed monkeys. The opera’s performers are carefully placed at intervals along the screen, walking in time to stay under the animated flying lamps that hover above their heads.

click to enlarge Critic's Pick: 'The Magic Flute'
Photo: Philip Groshong

The Magic Flute tells the story of Prince Tamino and Pamina (modeled in this production after silent film star Louise Brooks, famous for her flapper bob), who is the daughter of the Queen of the Night. After falling in love with a portrait of Pamina, Tamino is led to believe by the Queen that the high priest, Sarastro (who has abducted Pamina), is evil. Tamino sets out to rescue her from him and marry her. He is given a magic flute (or, in this production, an animated musical fairy) by her three ladies-in-waiting to help guide and protect him and is also accompanied by the bird-catcher Papageno, his comedic sidekick and a Buster Keaton-like figure here. Tamino subsequently discovers he is mistaken about Sarastro’s nature and complications ensue. 

It is fitting that, of all operas, 1927’s concept designers chose The Magic Flute to marry these mediums. It is Mozart’s most fantastical work, not set in any particular time. To echo Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director Evans Mirageas’ sentiments, The Magic Flute consists of some of the noblest, highest ideals with “some of the silliest shtick” of all theater. This makes a perfect concoction for the inventive and humorous images that play upon the stage at the hands of these brilliant creators. In true silent-film style, one of the more ingenious ideas of the team was to replace the spoken dialogue with title cards.

click to enlarge Critic's Pick: 'The Magic Flute'
Photo: Philip Groshong

Despite the cleverness of the animation, there were a couple of instances when it began to detract from the music, most especially during the Queen of the Night arias. All we see of Jeni Houser as the queen is her head at the utmost top of the screen while her body is projected to be an enormous skeletal spider. Her fearsome dagger-like legs move around trapping those underneath her. 

The production is cast with highly accomplished singers across the board. Most notable among them is Aaron Blake as Tamino. Blake’s warm, buttery tenor easily melts even the most stoic of hearts. Rodion Pogossov plays a superb Papageno, singing with an effortless and round lyric baritone. Kim-Lillian Strebel plays an enchanting Pamina. With a steely yet warm timber, she sings the stunning aria “Ach, ich fülh’s,” perhaps the focal point of the opera when the action finally slows for a few moments of reflection. 

In an ever-distracted world, it has been difficult for opera houses to maintain subscriptions and fill seats. However, if any production could turn the tides of dwindling audiences, it would be this one. It is not to be missed.

THE MAGIC FLUTE repeats Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall. Tickets/more info:

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