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It’s too bad operas aren’t eligible for the best animated feature Oscar, because L.A. Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute would be a contender. Though it’s entirely, tirelessly live, its human performers, in white-face makeup, exist in a cartoon world projected onto the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The orchestra and chorus, nimbly conducted by James Conlon, remind you that movies are at least half music. Has there ever been a more Hollywood-friendly opera than this inspired confection by Suzanne Andrade, Paul Barritt and Barrie Kosky?
Their Toontown is inspired by movies, especially silent film, with intertitles and Tamara Sanikidze‘s sprightly, old-time movie-house hammerklavier/keyed glockenspiel solos replacing the spoken dialogue. Papageno (Rodion Poggosov) resembles a more expressive Buster Keaton; his ideal female, Papagena (Amanda Woodbury), looks like early Mae West — pure as the driven snow, yet willing to drift. Pamina (Janai Brugger) is a less sinister Louise Brooks, pursued by lovelorn prince Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee).
And the baddies are still more striking. Monostatos (Rodell Rosel) is a clowning, lovable Nosferatu lookalike, the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa) has Bride of Frankenstein eyebrows on a head bigger than the Wizard of Oz’s. Stunningly, Miklosa’s enlarged head rests atop a stage-bestriding projected spider whose spiky legs zap people with electric-bolt drawings.
Papageno’s sidekick is an animated black cat that fluffs its fur in alarm like a refugee from an Ub Iwerks cartoon, and flocks of charming birds alternate with scary ones like the ones pioneer animator Iwerks created for Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds. Flying pink elephants like the ones in Dumbo enrapture pleasure-loving Papageno, and a sexy winged fairy resembling Disney’s Tinker Bell, or her predecessor, the White Rock mineral-water girl, floats around.
In fact, everything floats around, or explodes in a Roy Lichtenstein kerblam. The projected phantasmagoria blends brilliantly with the live actors, who stand on five cuckoo-clock-like platforms that emerge from Esther Bialas‘s set, a white wall when it’s not a cartoon universe. The ladies who rivalrously lust after Tamino (Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco, Peabody Southwell) are flappers as funny as Anita Loos and the Talmadge sisters. The three boys (Drew Pickett, Charles Connon, Jamal Jaffer) who fly the protagonists around, wearing giant butterfly wings, look like the cutouts crazy Henry Darger left on his cutting-room floor.
The staging makes this Magic Flute the ideal first opera for a kid to see, but most heads in the audience were white, and even traditionalists were smiling at the show’s ebullient effrontery.
The queen of the night was not, actually, the Queen of the Night, even though Miklosa hit those high F notes accurately and exquisitely. But she sang a bit mutedly, and her marvelous arias were no match for every exquisite second of singing by rising L.A. Opera star Janai Brugger’s Pamina — her solo inside a cartoon snowglobe was the heartrending high point of the evening.
Brugger brilliantly played the scene where she wakes up in bed with Nosferatu-esque Monostatos, hilariously amorous. The perspective worked beautifully — the bed is against the wall, so we glimpse them as from a camera mounted in the ceiling, as lustful, spider-like cartoon hands reach out to encircle her.
Admittedly, the animation confines the actors, who must elude cartoon dogs and dragons. I’ve never seen an opera where the singers’ bodies are less expressive. And sometimes your eye leaves the singers’ faces to inspect the busy, shifting images around them, only to find that they’re supposed to be backdrops, complicated Rube Goldberg devices with cameras whose gears are nuclear-symbol icons or little squids inside the letters of the word “Water.” At several points, you wish you’d kept watching the singer instead. The similar animated backdrops of Jun Kaneko‘s celebrated designs for San Francisco Opera’s 2012 Magic Flute, being abstract and geometrical, don’t risk quite the same conceptual clash with the physical action that this production does with absolute cartoon abandon.
So what? L.A. Opera’s Magic Flute is brashly cinematic, musically beautiful, and a kick in the slapstick pants. I’d watch it again tonight. It closes Dec. 15 and moves on to Minneapolis in April. It’s worth a trip to Minneapolis.
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