Monday, December 16, 2013
Douglas Messerli | "Emblems of Love" (on Mozart's The Magic Flute)
emblems of love
by Douglas Messerli
Emanuel Schikaneder (libretto), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (music) The Magic Flute / Los Angeles, LAOpera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, December 15, 2013.
Let me begin by admitting to what some may see as sacrilegious: of Mozart’s major operas, I least like his The Magic Flute. To me both Don Giovanni and Cossi fan tutte, the latter almost a variation of his last opera in its testing of faithfulness and love. With its heavy Masonic iconography, its fantasy and fairy-tale silliness and inconsistencies, and in its abstracted and often undeveloped characterizations, The Magic Flute is more about the idea of love and its challenges than actually a tale of two lovers willing to suffer the trials and tribulations of physical and psychic attraction. The fact that in this opera Mozart has so abstracted love, along with its comic book-like and fantasy figures is obviously what makes this opera so attractive to children—or, at least, to parents who would wish their children might grow to love opera. The very fact that Tamino, chased by the dragon, falls in love with a picture of Pamina, as opposed to a real being is what makes this tale a voyage safe for the kids. Indeed, throughout the entire opera, the two lovers hardly have more than a few moments together, kissing only at the end—an end that represents, at least symbolically, a life after death—after all they have been silenced, tempted, burned to ashes, and tied to the ocean floor beforehand.
Given the isolation of character and gaps of logic and plot of The Magic Flute, directors and designers generally fill the spaces with extraordinarily elaborate costumes and fabulous fairy-tale like sets which enchant audiences young and old and keep them from too carefully questioning and the why and where the characters actions and travels in their attempt to enter the temples of knowledge and wisdom. And in that sense, I have to admit, the LAOpera production I saw, based on the remarkable Komische Oper Berlin production with direction by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky and animations and concept by the two-person group 1927, consisting of Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barrit, is definitely the most innovative version of the Mozart opera in years.
If at moments this can move a little too far in the director of Disney’s Fantasia, the work’s evil figures call up images that seem to salute the convoluted mechanical constructions of Monty Python and Gabe Ruberg. The terrifying aria wherein The Queen of the Night orders her daughter to kill Sarastro (Evan Boyer) becomes a horrifying series of images in which her spider claws turn suddenly into daggers pinning Pamina into the prison of her will.
As a lover of artifice, of course, this does not truly trouble me. Mozart’s work, in this case, was never intended to be a psychological exploration of why people fall in love or try to defeat its forces. Leave that to somewhat like Bergman, whose The Magic Flute-influenced film I have previously described (see above). Here love, the lovers’ willingness to suffer its torments, and the knowledge that suffering rewards is as inexplicable as why Adam and Eve became determined to eat the forbidden “apple” which expelled them from their own magical lives.
Los Angeles, December 16, 2013