Review/Music

Opera at its most transformative

21 February 2019

Perth Festival review: Komische Oper Berlin, Barry Kosky & 1927, ‘Mozart’s The Magic Flute’ ·
His Majesty’s Theatre February 20 ·
Review by Ron Banks ·

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Although it’s called Mozart’s The Magic Flute, it should really be named Barrie Kosky and 1927’s Flute because this eye-popping, mind-bending interpretation of such a famous work was dreamed up by the Australian–born director and his British co-creators Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt of London-based performance company 1927.

A cast of 55 singers flown in from Germany, with the Komische Oper’s own conductor Hendrik Vestmann marshalling the forces of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, reactivated the old Maj stage in the dazzling style that has now become synonymous with Kosky.

Make that two casts of 55 singers plus technical staff flown in, because the opera is repeated on consecutive nights and the first cast gets a night’s rest while the other cast takes over.

What is totally different from conventional Flutes is the combination of live action on stage and projected animation. Providing much more than a backdrop, the performers interact as much with the images as with each other.

The animation sequences, which occur throughout the opera, were created by 1927’s Paul Barritt who, with Andrade, named the company after the year that sound took over from silent movies.

But here, 1927, Kosky and set/costume designer Esther Bialas look back to the silent era, with its chase sequences, costuming style and sub-titles. The men, in the main, wear 1920s suits; the women, flapper dresses and haircuts. The Queen of the Night, (Christina Poulitsi), is the exception; she’s portrayed as a spider with a large web. Papageno (Joan Martin-Royo) looks like silent movie star Buster Keaton and the chorus men are Abraham Lincoln look-alikes.

Blended into the silent movie imagery is old-style paper animation of cut-out cats, dogs, spiders, assorted monsters, human dentures and machinery with cogs and wheels that date back to the 19th century. Creativity and imagination run riot.

Two real people standing on a projection of a roof.
Joan Martin-Royo as Papageno and Iwona Sobotka as Pamina. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

With so much going on aesthetically, it is no wonder that the visuals consume the attention, and sometimes we have to remind ourselves that this is an opera – a comic one set in a dream-like fantasy world – where the human voice and its orchestral accompaniment are the essential elements.

Opera purists might suggest that directors Kosky and Andrade are so focused on the visuals that the sound element takes a back seat. Not so. WASO performs with its customary brilliance and the lead singers deliver their arias with wit and panache. The three young German lads (from Tölzer Boys Choir) who are the boy-spirit trio are delightful.

Opening night leads Aaron Blake and Iwona Sobotka, as the young lovers Tamino and Pamina, are accomplished and often thrilling in their vocal agility, not the least for having the courage to sing on a ledge high above the stage. At various points each of the principals has to negotiate tricky perches at some altitude, swiftly disappearing into the backdrop at the end of the aria.

Kosky and Andrade dispense with the speech elements in this sung-spiel opera, substituting simple film captions to explain the narrative. And with surtitles on television screens all around the Maj it is easy to follow the action – as convoluted and fantastic as Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder made it for the first performance in Vienna in 1791.

Paring out the dialogue makes for a speedy style, although nothing of the essentials of this story of lonely people looking for love and enlightenment in the face of physical trials is lost.

The Magic Flute is undoubtedly the most ambitious opera – in conceptual terms – to be mounted at the Maj, and can be counted a resounding success. It will long be remembered not only as a Festival highlight, but a major landmark in the State’s cultural history.

And don’t be put off by the high ticket prices – it’s value for money and transformative in the way we think about how opera can be performed.

The Magic Flute plays His Majesty’s Theatre until February 23.

Pictured top: The Queen of the Night (Christina Poulitsi) and Pamina (Iwona Sobotka). Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

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Author —
Ron Banks

Ron Banks has reviewed the arts in WA for more years than he cares to remember. A former arts editor of The West Australian, he has reviewed performances in spaces from a dozen seats to super-stadiums. His only time on stage was as a spear-carrier in the opera Aida at Singapore’s sports stadium. His favourite playground equipment is the flying fox.

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