Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
The Magic Flute comes with baggage. There’s misogyny and racism embedded in the text. Its moral message boils down to “Trust dudes with beards, and also love is cool!” The libretto is long, poorly paced and dumb as a bag of rocks; unless you’re really into Freemasonry, the second half drags ass all the way to a jarring anticlimax.
There are good things built in, too, obviously, or it wouldn’t be one of the most popular operas ever. There’s Mozart’s immensely likeable score. The jokes transcend time and language. The Queen of the Night’s big arias are a standing invitation to bring down the house; ditto the fairy-tale setting for costume and set designers. Still, modern productions of The Magic Flute tend to have some sort of conceit to distract from the nonsensical story: It’s all a dream! It’s a post-suicide journey to the afterlife! It’s drugs! Postmodernism!
In Diane Paulus’ new take, a production premiered in Toronto in 2011 and now getting its third outing from Opera Philadelphia, the Academy of Music’s stage literally contains another, smaller stage, on which an 18th-century audience of aristocrats and servants watch a production of The Magic Flute. I hate to discourage Opera Philadelphia from giving new stuff a shot, but this production is confusing, and its core concept — plus a couple key voices one afternoon — just isn’t all there.
The play-within-a-play conceit worked great in the first act: Seeing the onstage “audience” gasp at monsters and giggle at over-the-top mugging did a wonderfully efficient job of establishing that The Magic Flute has less-dignified origins than the golden Academy stage would suggest. It also limits production-value expectations, which was freeing — you don’t wish for some $20,000 Julie Taymor puppet when the audience on stage is so clearly delighted by a giant dragon head stuck on top of two skinny human legs.
There’s some meta-story going on in the world of the aristocrats — the birthday-girl noble who ends up playing Pamina maybe likes the guy playing Tamino? The actress playing the Queen of the Night is married to the actor playing Monostatos, and they’re both into leather? But since it’s not remotely in the text, the poor actors are stuck trying to communicate a second narrative using only Twilight-worthy significant looks. I had only a vague idea of what was going on with the meta-plot when the Act I curtains fell — first the small one, then the big one — but the fun outweighed the confusion.
Unfortunately, Act II jettisons the stage-within-a-stage concept and goes right off the rails. If a piece of scenery moved in the first act, you saw a servant move it. The second act is done in a labyrinth of hedges that shift around via the more standard unseen stagehands, and the actors seem to have actually become their characters.
This could have been neat if the audience had the vaguest idea why this happened. But “As the drama unfolds, the actors leave the theatre behind ... . All distinctions between fantasy and reality fade away as their pageant lasts through the night” is all we get about it in Paulus’ production notes. Fairies? Eighteenth-century acid tea? Who knows?
Costumes that might have been charmingly DIY in the context of an 18th-century garden party felt cheap in the second act — the climactic trials by fire and water (shown, above) particularly looked like a high-school-dance-team interpretation of Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” and, according to a friend, caused the opening-night audience to break out laughing.
The standout was Curtis alum Elizabeth Zharoff as Pamina, who overcame her Disney-heroine outfit to make even the most ludicrously unearned emotional moments feel real. Zharoff has the vocal equivalent of Claire Danes’ cry-face, unafraid to be less than pretty. I bought that she was heartbroken to the point of suicide because a dude she’d known for, like, five minutes wouldn’t talk to her, and the high note she hit when they were reunited had such joy in it that I got shivers. Baritone Mark Stone nailed both the music and the comedy as Papageno, playing him as a Jason Segel character.
Not all the roles were so well-cast. The opposition of Sarastro and the Queen is reflected in their extreme ranges — he needs a solid, trust-me-I’m-a-bass low F, while she’s defined by the cold power and glittery precision of her high range, up to a high F. Strangely, neither singer cast had the voice necessary for the part: Jordan Bisch sounded lovely higher up, but the low notes weren’t there. And Rachele Gilmore, singing the Queen for the first time in her career, doesn’t have that big, scary voice yet, and was a bit imprecise to boot.
The supertitles were interesting — what gets left behind in the jump from German to English has a big effect on the story. As in most modern translations, the racist stuff about Monostatos the rapey Moorish slave gets left behind, because yikes. (The thankless role is well played by tenor Joseph Gaines as something like the hypersexual but unthreatening Dean on Community.)
The sexism that’s too plot-central to be left out — most of the Temple of Bros Before Hos — also seemed to be disarmed by playful, tongue-in-cheek supertitles that make it sound pompous verging on silly. Giggles broke out when Sarastro solemnly congratulated Tamino with “Your manly behavior has triumphed” and “Your conduct has been manly and composed.” The supertitles also leave out enough of the Queen’s nattering and specific evil designs to make her seem sympathetic enough that at times I wondered if the libretto was translated by Howard Zinn.
Not that I object! The happy-ending tableau, as the sun rises and the garden party comes down from all those mushrooms or whatever, includes the Queen and Monostatos happily embracing amid the rest of the group. I liked it more than the usual endings, where they’ve been banished or killed by the beardo patriarchy. I fully support productions that ditch some bits of The Magic Flute in the name of “we don’t do that bullshit anymore.” If only it had been done in a way that made a lick of sense.
Through April 28, $10-$235, Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., 215-893-1999, operaphila.org.
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