Review: The Magic Flute at Houston Grand Opera

Presentation by the Houston Grand Opera of Mozart’s last masterpiece, The magic flute, a co-production between Komische Oper Berlin and London’s avant-garde theater company 1927, is one for the ages. You haven’t seen anything like it. It’s haunting, incredibly theatrical, cutting-edge, and deeply compelling. A feat of theatrical conjuring of the highest caliber, it raises the bar for all opera to come.

Whether it’s good for the future of art, I’m not sure, because Herr Mozart takes a back seat to all the visual shenanigans that surround his sublime music. Mozart being Mozart it’s hard to overshadow him, but the real star of this show is animator Paul Barritt, co-founder and co-artistic director of 1927. There’s so much going on – projections, animations and special effects (Disney’s old-school wizards would cheer heartily and be green with envy) – all brilliantly realized and engineered – that there’s no place for Mozart but the backseat. This is a production where you stare at the footage, marveling at the amusement, but you hear this wonderful soundtrack lurking in the background, somewhat understated and slightly unused.

The concept is solid. Gift Flute like a silent movie. Use all of its tropes – intertitles (which replace the opera’s dialogue passages), cinematic techniques like fades, the ins and outs of the iris, even its annoying scratches and artifacts; pay homage to Buster Keaton, Max Schreck from Nosferatu, bad-girl cinema Louise Brooks; then project it onto a giant screen in front of which the singers interact. The effects can be mind-blowing. The Queen of the Night (coloratura soprano Rainelle Krause), the opera’s most iconic role, becomes a giant spider, her pointy legs enveloping the helpless hero Tamino (tenor Norman Reinhardt).

Birdcatcher Papageno (baritone Thomas Glass) runs in place, his legs comically jogging in animation. The dragon chasing Tamino hovers here and there while cartoon arrows follow him. The three ladies (Caitlin Lynch, Sun-Ly Pierce, Taylor Raven) kiss handsome Tamino who turns into candy hearts for Valentine’s Day. A gigantic cartoon moth descends the three Spirits (young Alexis Medina, Ella Clark Theuer, Liam Norton) in a wicker basket as if by balloon. The whole production is so smart and imaginative, beautifully done, full of magic, comedic wonder and love of cinema.

But all this theatrical sorcery is tiring. No matter how deep the animation or the sense of the movement – when Tamino descends into the temple of Sarastro (bass Anthony Robin Schneider) we feel a bit uneasy, as we did decades ago decades on the roller coaster of Cinerama, even if no one is actually moving – the whole opera lacks depth, it’s one-dimensional. The singers barely move, they are stuck in the screen of their revolving doors so that the projections synchronize with their positions.

During a crossover, lecherous Monostatos (tenor Aaron Pegram) leads a lively pack of dogs, the leash matching his hand perfectly. It’s one thing that the background dances and animates, but we lack the actors’ own movement. They’re pinned in place, flat against the screen, unlike Popageno’s many butterflies, sprites, and friendly cat that roam freely and have lives of their own. Apart from the animations, nobody is very animated. (And shouldn’t Papageno, the bird catcher, have a pet bird instead of a cat as a companion?)

The singers, mostly former students of the prestigious HGO Studio, are capable, but seem outclassed by the special effects. As a dancer once said when she was scheduled to perform at a New York supper club in her early days, I had to compete with the beef steak. Well, singers have to compete with stunning visual wonders. They are overwhelmed. Even Krause, who made an international impact with his queen of the night, seems somewhat diminished. She sings her classic tune, “Der Holle Rache” (Hell’s Revenge), one of the most treacherous pieces in opera, with precision but not much evil force. The stratospheric high Fs were there but didn’t pack much of a dramatic punch, although the opening night audience vehemently approved. It’s hard to be mean when you’re a disembodied head atop a cartoon arachnid.

Only soprano Andrea Carroll, as the daughter of the Queen of the Night, Pamina, in love at first sight with Tamino, rises above the visuals. She makes a strong impression with her silky voice and her power. Its suicidal air, overseen by skeletal vultures on a rocky precipice straight out of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, is charged with emotion and conviction that transcends animation. Everywhere, this singer transcends.

Maestro Dame Jane Glover, newly elevated to the Order of the British Empire in last month’s New Year Honours, leads a spirited orchestra. You can tell she reveres and delights in her Mozart. Co-directed by 1927’s Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper Berlin, reprized here by director Erik Friedman, Flute is a stunning, full revealing look. (You may remember Kosky’s impressive work on HGO Saul as of 2019, one of the company’s crown jewels.) This may be the output HGO has been waiting for. It’s user-friendly, computer-generated, and decidedly fresh and innovative. Quite astonishing in its flair and verve, Flute sings with post-modern elan and cheeky charm. You won’t forget it.

Always an innovator, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, eternal musical genius, would have loved this show, even if he only got a second poster.

Note: Can anyone explain why Sarastro and his choir of priests are wearing COVID masks? No one else at the opera wears them. Is it symbolic or a director’s touch? A subtle Masonic influence? Aren’t all these singers vaccinated? What is going on? On the other hand, could someone please tell me why the patrons of the founders boxes are allowed to drink their prosecco and chardonnay during the performance and unmask, while the tall unwashed ones below suffocate under their N95s and do not turn off? Hmm?

The Magic Flute continues until February 13 at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Mandatory face masks. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $20 to $210.

About Madeline J. Carter

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