Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - The Magic Flute - Norske Opera on Opera Platform

For 2016 I am beginning what I hope will be a series of posts each Sunday of a review of an opera performance viewed online.  For today - January 3, 2016 - The Magic Flute performed by by Den Norske Opera and Ballet, and available on Opera Platform from now until June.

First - this review will probably contain some SPOILERS - so if you want to watch it first, do.

      The Magic Flute is a wonderful opera, but the plot has always been a bit confusing and remote.  There are lots of seeming contradictions and in a way it appears that the librettists were headed in one direction and then go off in another.  (See my post below for more specifics).  One thing that we can say for sure is that the opera is deeply rooted in the late 18th century enlightenment and in Viennese Masonry.  If you have some understanding of that, and the production doesn't cut so much of the dialogue as to make the plot incomprehensible then you can follow it.  But this is the problem: most folks don't have the background and just want to enjoy a night at the opera.  Luckily despite the strange plot the music is sublime and most productions (example - the current Met production by Julie Taymor) are so colorful that the opera is very entertaining.
    So, the Norske production: You do not need to know anything about Magic Flute, Mozart, or 18th century Vienna.  The plot has been completely re-written.  We are now in the world of "Star Wars."  It is very clever and they obviously dedicated a lot of resources to this.  The sets and especially the costumes and make-up are very well done and quite intricate.  Prince Tamino, a member of the Star Wars rebellion, crash lands on a strange planet and a new adventure begins.  Obviously there are resonances with the original plot, but it is very different.  One the face of it - we have an intergalactic marital separation between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night and a custody fight (yes, in the original they were never married, but they were here and here they are Pamina's parents).  But that is not what it is about - it is much deeper than that.  What does it mean to be a real man?  Is a real man one who suppresses his feelings and can remain stoic and unmoved in the face of pain and sorrow?  Is being "rugged individualists" what it is all about?  For me one of the best moments of the production was Pamina's aria "Ah, Ich Fühls" (beautifully sung by Mari Eriksmoen - in Norwegian with titles). She sings this with Tamino and Papageno on stage and after she leaves in sorrow, Papageno's response was the highlight of the entire production for me, and in that response we catch a glimpse of what this production is trying to say.  SPOILER - Meaning and life are to be found in love, in forgiveness and in community!  It was a very timely and important message.
     I really don't mind that they completely rewrote the plot.  I thought it worked - for the most part and was extremely entertaining to boot.  The star of the show was without a doubt the Papageno of Atle Antonsen, who is not an opera singer.  He is a Norwegian comedian, and in this he stands in the tradition of Emanuel Schickeneder, one of the librettists and Mozart's first Papageno.  Schickenader was not a singer either, but was very successful.  Antonsen was excellent - annoying at times, but very effective with all of his dialog (yes they have English subtitles - and a good thing it is too otherwise one would completely miss the point).  It is Papageno - along with Papagena (who in keeping with the intent of this production now has a much larger role) that interrupts and affects the conclusion.  The cast was all very good - but the Pamina and Papageno were the standouts.  Mari, Pamina, has a gorgeous voice and I loved listening to her sing.  So the production is fun, entertaining with a good and comprehensible message.
    But, I have to say that I did not at all like what they did here and there with the score, and it was, in my view, completely unnecessary to make all of those cuts, interruptions  and changing the order. I would have personally enjoyed this production much more if they had left the score alone and performed it as written, even with the new libretto and plot changes.  Throughout there were all kinds of synthesizer noises, which were fine during the dialog but please not during the music.  Also, significantly, there was no glockenspiel!  In fact, Papageno dismisses the glock player from the pit early in the opera.  The glock is replaced by....  wait for it ... SPOILER ALERT.... Maracas.  Yes, Maracas - I hated that with a passion.  It ruined all of those wonderful moments in the opera.  And for what?  A cheap laugh. Totally unnecessary IMHO. Then there was the re-ordering - in the first act finale, but the worst came during the trial scene.  This also ruined that scene for me - plus there was only one trial, not two.  Again, not necessary.  The musical tinkering was really the major negative for me and almost ruined the performance for me.  Except that I found the rest of the production rather captivating, especially as we got closer to the end.  And I enjoyed the 3 Spirits (who were obviously not boys so why call them boys?).  I need to add that I felt that the orchestra and chorus were all too heavy.  The conductor needed to lighten up the musical performance a lot.
     Opera Platform has made available a number of really interesting productions from around the world.  I have seen almost all of them and have enjoyed them.  I would encourage you to explore their site and check out some of the other performances.  In conclusion, I enjoyed this.  It was fun and well done.  I wish these folks would leave the score alone, but I thought the rest of it worked - for what it was.  Go into it expecting a transformed "Magic Flute."

Check out other Opera Platform productions here!
A really interesting conversation ensued on Facebook regarding my comment above about Sarastro not being Pamina's father in the original libretto - he is her Uncle.  The Queen of the Night was married to Sarastro's brother.  Here is the original speech that preceeds the Queen's aria "Die Hölle Rache:"
The Queen to Pamina:  "Your father, who was the Master here, voluntarily cast off the seven-aureoled solar emblem of the Initiates of Isis. Another now bears the powerful solar emblem upon his breast: Sarastro. Shortly before your father's death, I reproached him about this matter. Then he said to me severely: 'Woman, I am soon going to die; all the treasures that were my private property I leave to you and to your daughter.' 'And the Solar Circle, which encompasses the universe and penetrates it with its rays, to whom do you leave that?' I asked sharply. 'Let it belong to the Initiates,' was his reply. "Sarastro will be the manly guardian, as I myself have been up to this day. Ask me not one word more. These matters are not accessible to your woman's spirit. Your duty is to submit yourself completely, and your daughter also, to the direction of these Wise Men.'

And here is a magnificent performance by Natalie Dessay that includes this speech:

Finally, The comment was made about the sexism and racism that is a part of this libretto - actually the word used was "misogynist."  Here is my response:

I also think that the current trend of trying not to offend and to make the various plots acceptable to 21st century tastes and attitudes is a bad idea. We need to always recognize where we have come from. MF definitely had a view of women that we no longer accept. But can we say it is misogynist when we are applying our values on a work that was created a couple centuries ago when attitudes were different? It might be for us, but is it fair to accuse them of that? There were all kinds of other issues going on. In fact, the resolution of this opera finds Pamina successfully going through the trials with Tamino. That would have been pretty progressive for the time. So, Sarastro is a sexist (by our standards), but he is not ultimately successful in making his daughter submit to his authority. Monostatos is more offensive and I do think current productions need to modify some of the harsh rhetoric around him. But it is instructive for us to see and be reminded of these attitudes as they might give us insight into our own problems. The fact is that we might not have moved so far away from these attitudes after all.

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