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The Magic Flute - Theatre Reviews

January 21, 2013

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    January 21, 2013
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    Opera Carolina News

The Magic Flute - Theatre Reviews

Mozart's famous fairy-tale singing play, or Singspiel, The Magic Flute, which he conducted in its Viennese premiere in 1791, about two months before his death, seems to be a light-hearted musical romp through an impossible fantasy world. But its exploration of conflicts between patriarchal reason and maternal passion, with a birdman seeking his ideal mate and Enlightenment ideas involving ancient Egyptian or Masonic myths, has a darker, Romantic side. The current Opera Carolina production puts a new spin on the Singspiel's magic—with Jun Kaneko's reverse orientalist rococo—which masks that darkness, yet reveals further ironies between West and East today.

Japanese ceramicist Kaneko has designed several operas in America since 2006. Here, theatergoers can experience his style even before the show begins. Extras in whiteface makeup and oddly geometric costumes with bold colors stand in the upper and lower Belk lobbies. And then, with the comic opera's overture, a video animation plays across the downstage scrim: linear threads move together, or cross one another. They are mostly red but also yellow, blue, green, and purple, on a light blue weave.

After the scrim lifts, a huge two-headed, yet also brightly colored serpent attacks Prince Tamino (Shawn Mathey), who cries for help, unheroically. Three Ladies, as magical warriors (Diane McEwen-Martin, Melinda Whittington, and Daidree Tofano), save him with their spears. They wear bright colors, too, with whiteface makeup and a dark spot on their left breasts, like mythical Amazons. Tamino also faints.

Hints already begin here of the decorative, anti-heroic ironies in Kaneko's designs and Garnett Bruce's staging of this Singspiel. When the bird-catcher Papageno enters the scene and becomes Tamino's comic sidekick, he makes the fantasy even more fun, especially with Kyle Pfortmille's excellent acting skills. He wears a bright green and blue body suit (one leg of each color) with black cross-hatchings, a white vest, and a jester's cap. Initially, he carries a rack of eggs on his back, which will eventually yield offspring when he gets the bird-girl of his dreams.

The Queen of the Night (Maria Aleida) has a big entrance, with a large cage-like crown attached to her shoulders, a bright red and gold skirt, and crayon textured rays on the screen behind her. With her saving of Tamino and Papageno, through her Ladies, she inspires their gratitude and gives them a mission: to get her daughter Pamina (Yunah Lee) back from the wicked King Sarastro (Tom McNichols). Yet, our anti-hero, his birdman sidekick (who often stands on one leg and squawks), and the damsel in distress become twisted in the web of this Queen and King rivalry, like kids in a divorce.

Kaneko costumes the "evil Moor" Monostatos (Julius Ahn) in kabuki-like makeup and vest with vertical black hair, which again parodies the Western fetishizing of oriental art. Princess Pamina, whom he threatens to rape, wears a very broad, dark blue skirt, with black and white hatchings, making her look like Alice lost in a postcolonial wonderland. Her Mad Queen mother has painted the King as evil and his servant, the Moor, fits that projection, through Western orientalist fantasies.

And yet, the kids learn otherwise about the King from a high priest at the Temple of Wisdom, with its yellow triangle on the back scrim framed by blue and black pillars. Kaneko's use of such bold colors and geometric designs suggests various ironic spins, not only on the Masonic idealizing of ancient Egypt in Mozart's time, or the modernist objectifying of people in art before the second world war, but also on the revival of imperial ideals more recently. In a later temple scene, an eye in the triangle, like that on our dollar bills, even blinks.

Tamino uses his magic flute to charm large wingless polka-dotted birds and other two-legged animals with abstract toy-block heads. Perhaps this hints at monstrous genetic experiments or pollution's tragic effects today. Yet it is presented in a delightfully playful way. Papageno also spins a black and white spiral as his magic bell to make the Moor and his henchman dance away, saving the princess. But later, he almost hangs himself, when he has lost his romantic match Papagena, after pleading with the gods and the audience to help him—and they don't.

The magic of Mozart's music pervades this production, with fine singing from each performer. Papageno almost steals the show, yet brings the audience closer to it, with popular references and comic gestures. Kaneko's designs may annoy traditionalists, or make it seem like a kid with crayons went wild around the Mint Museum's art deco furnishings. But together they make this Singspeil a fully entertaining probe into the good and evil, sexist, orientalist projections that endanger our culture's Enlightenment views today.

By Mark Pizzato Arts a la Mode

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