With a fantastic visual presentation in which singers interact with animated imagery, L.A. Opera’s surreal twist on W.A. Mozart’s The Magic Flute is that rare opera that is both wildly popular and artistically satisfying. The inventive production created by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky has been so well received that the local opera company is reprising it again for the next few weeks after successful performances in 2013 and 2016.
On opening night on Saturday, November 16, of its latest run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, this version of The Magic Flute proved to be as charming as ever, even with a largely new cast. Meanwhile, across town at Royce Hall in Westwood, L.A. Chamber Orchestra performed the West Coast premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s Dark With Excessive Bright, a concerto for double bass and strings, on Sunday, November 17, as part of a thematically linked program of relatively modern pieces that also blend bold ideas with a reverence for classical-music tradition.
Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for The Magic Flute centers on Prince Tamino (Russian tenor Bogdan Volkov), who is enlisted by the Queen of the Night (South Korean soprano So Young Park) to rescue her daughter Pamina (Czech coloratura soprano Zuzana Marková) from the evil priest Sarastro (Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo). Schikaneder and Mozart’s lighthearted work is an operatic fairy tale, but in the hands of Kosky and Andrade it becomes even more enchanting as animation designer Paul Barritt’s colorful, cartoonlike images are projected onstage.
The vocalists cavort with images of gigantic serpents and spiders, predatory wolves, drunken pink elephants, one very cute black cat, and cyborg-like creatures who are half-machine and half-animal. The whimsical visuals evoke everything from German Expressionist films and the psychedelic animation in Yellow Submarine to the macabre whimsy of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams. The explanatory dialogue that Mozart employed in creating this Singspiel opera has been replaced in this production by silent movie–style intertitles.
As directed by Suzanne Andrade, L.A. Opera’s The Magic Flute is essentially the same as the previous versions of Kosky and Andrade’s production, even with a mostly new cast hitting their marks onstage (standing in the correct places onstage is especially crucial in this production so that the vocalists are aligned with the animated imagery). Esther Bialas’ costumes are the same as before, and they are lavishly fanciful, especially Pamina’s dramatic goth-like black gown adorned with black flowers.
In many ways, The Magic Flute is the Queen of the Night’s opera. The character has to sing two arias, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” and “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” that not only contain some of the most memorable melodies in the traditional operatic canon but are also supremely difficult to sing. Park, who has portrayed the Queen of the Night in L.A. Opera’s previous performances of this production, was masterful on opening night. Perched on a narrow platform high above the stage as her spidery character railed at the men who have kidnapped her daughter, Park was a fittingly bewitching presence as her voice radiated powerfully throughout the room.
As the queen’s daughter, Marková was also a charismatic force. Her achingly bittersweet lamentation “Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden” (“Ah, I feel it, it is vanished”) in Act 2 was sublime, a rare moment of genuine pathos amid the opera’s merriment. Volkov was suitably heroic, with a fine, clear tone as Tamino. Frederick Ballentine lowered the boom with low, resonant vocals as Monostatos. In this production, Sarastro was more campy than sinister, which lessened D’Arcangelo’s impact. Baritone Theo Hoffman played Papageno, the flighty bird catcher who struggles to overcome his cowardice and match Tamino’s bravery. Hoffman was game, but his Papageno lacked that certain irrepressible swagger that other vocalists have employed in this and other productions in turning the bird catcher into a larger-than-life comic foil.
Mezzo-soprano Vivien Shotwell was vibrant, soprano Erica Petrocelli was sterling, and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven possessed a warm tone as they portrayed the Three Ladies who rescue Tamino and set him off on his quest to rescue Pamina. Angelic vocalists David Kakuk, Thomas Quinn Fagan and Anika Erickson were also delightful as the child spirits who guide Tamino and Papageno. For the remainder of this run of The Magic Flute, Joshua Wheeker (as Tamino) and Jeni Houser (Queen of the Night) will appear at some performances.
Whether onstage or singing offstage, the L.A. Opera Chorus was rousing and full-bodied. The playing by the L.A. Opera Orchestra, conducted by the redoubtable James Conlon, felt a little restrained at first before gathering momentum in Act 2. Conlon, who often gives informative back stories about the operas at his pre-performance lectures, conducts the opera’s November performances before L.A. Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon conducts the remaining shows in December.
There was a lot going on when L.A. Chamber Orchestra set up camp the next night at Royce Hall. The ensemble recently began its 2019-2020 season with its new music director, Jaime Martín, an energetic Spanish conductor who informed the crowd that the evening’s seemingly disparate program was thematically linked because each composer was trying to create something new while paying homage to the classical past. The night started with LACO principal cellist Andrew Shulman and principal harpist Joanne Turovsky stirring up the soft murmurs of Pablo Casals’ Song of the Birds, a spare, delicate piece whose subtle exchanges of harp and cello were sometimes drowned out by the audience coughing and shifting restlessly in their seats.
Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin was a lovely if traditional diversion, but the program really came to life with Missy Mazzoli’s Dark With Excessive Bright, which was given its West Coast premiere by LACO at two concerts this weekend, first at Alex Theatre on Saturday, followed by the Royce Hall concert on Sunday. Back in 2015, L.A. Opera presented the Brooklyn composer’s Song From the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt (with a libretto by Royce Vavrek), an enigmatic and evocatively moody modern opera about the fearless Swiss explorer that combined curiously strange music and atmospheric film imagery, at REDCAT. But Dark With Excessive Bright conjured an entirely different feeling.
The instrumental piece was performed by double bassist David Grossman and LACO’s string section. Unlike many new-music works, Dark With Excessive Bright invoked classical tradition with its lush melodies and rippling waves of violins. But there were also modern accents, such as the way the strings would swoon at times and lean toward a smeary sourness before bending back to overt prettiness. Grossman’s double-bass lines were like a low, undulating river current moving underneath the patterned waves of the other string parts. The piece wasn’t radical and shocking so much as it was layered and lulling.
After intermission, LACO returned with the double punch of Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and Sergei Prokofiev’s First Symphony. For all its beauty, the suite from Pulcinella felt a little wan, but the energy level picked up again with Prokofiev’s symphony, a neoclassical work that invokes Haydn and Mozart. While not as adventurous as some of the Russian composer’s more daring works, the symphony sounded magnificent in the boxy confines of Royce Hall as delivered by a demonstrative Jaime Martín and an engaged orchestra. Throughout the evening, concertmaster Margaret Batjer wrung out expressive melodies on violin, and oboist Claire Brazeau also stood out with her vibrant delivery.
The Magic Flute continues at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; Thurs., Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m.; through Sun., Dec. 15, 2 p.m.; $39-$299. (213) 972-0711, laopera.org.
Martín conducts works by Handel and Telemann when LACO performs at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, 1220 Second St., Santa Monica; Thurs., Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m.; $63. And at the Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; Fri., Nov. 22, 7:30 p.m.; sold out. (213) 622-7001, laco.org.