The Magic Flute Is Opera for People Who Don't Usually See Opera

Jonathan Michie, Marita Sølberg and Brenton Ryan in L.A. Opera's The Magic FluteEXPAND
Jonathan Michie, Marita Sølberg and Brenton Ryan in L.A. Opera's The Magic Flute
Photo by Craig T. Mathew

A handsome prince finds himself in the belly of a glowering dragon. The Queen of the Night makes her grand entrance as a skeletal spider stalking on eight tall, spindly legs. Three whiteface choirboys are lowered in a basket carried by a gigantic moth. Later, a drunk bird catcher parties with a herd of cartoonish pink elephants who, improbably, twirl parasols and flash their legs in striped tights.

The nonstop animated imagery is surreally enchanting in L.A. Opera’s latest presentation of The Magic Flute at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The stunning visuals are courtesy of Australian director Barrie Kosky and designers Paul Barritt and Suzanne Andrade of the British theater group 1927, who first brought this production to Los Angeles in 2013. Their playful version of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder’s operatic fairy tale has helped trigger newfound interest in the work even among audiences who don’t normally go to the opera.

Those who missed it the first time around get five more chances to witness this unusual blend of projected animation and live staging, as L.A. Opera encores the production with a new cast of singers. For all the fantastic imagery — including a descent into hellish catacombs and a despairing heroine perched precariously atop a steep cliff as she is menaced by skull-faced gryphons and a dark sky of raining daggers — it’s ultimately Mozart’s charming melodies and the singers’ consistently excellent performances that make this reinterpretation of The Magic Flute so memorable.

Prince Tamino (tenor Ben Bliss) awakens after being rescued from the stomach of a dragon by three sarcastic and saucy goddesses (Summer Hassan, Peabody Southwell and the vocally vibrant Stacey Tappan) who work for the Queen of the Night (So Young Park). Tamino and a feckless bird catcher named Papageno (Jonathan Michie) are recruited by the queen to rescue her daughter Pamina (soprano Marita Sølberg), who’s been kidnapped by the villainous Sarastro (Wilhelm Schwinghammer). To assist them on their journey, the heroic duo are given a magic flute and a set of bells (whose mesmerizing, chimelike tones are evoked by the orchestra through a keyed glockenspiel).

Jonathan Michie in The Magic FluteEXPAND
Jonathan Michie in The Magic Flute
Photo by Craig T. Mathew

Bliss is a dashing, clear-voiced presence, while Michie draws the most laughs with his pratfalls and comic body language as he’s pushed, prodded and poked by the various interfering gods and goddesses. Accompanied by tenor Brenton Ryan (as Sarastro’s henchman Monostatos), Schwinghammer is a properly imposing figure with his deep bass vocals.

But the most impressive singing comes from Sølberg and Park. Decked out in a Louise Brooks-style bob, Sølberg is a radiant force as she laments her apparent loveless fate while ensconced in a funereal snow globe, stirring up lulling black pools of sorrow during a solo in the second act. As the queen, Park draws even louder applause as she skillfully navigates Mozart’s tricky scales with a powerfully birdlike charisma.

Conductor James Conlon was typically savvy. Not only did he revive Mozart’s beloved melodies without allowing the orchestra to lapse into syrupy sentimentality, he also gave succinctly humorous insight about the opera in his pre-concert lecture, explaining how Schikaneder’s seemingly daft German-language libretto is actually full of Freemason symbols and infused with humanistic themes of enlightenment and brotherhood.

The Magic Flute, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Sat., Feb. 20, Wed., Feb. 24 & March 2, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 28 & March 6, 2 p.m.  (213) 972-7219, laopera.org

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