EIF 2015 review: The Magic Flute

First published in the Guardian on 28 August, 2015

This production is a joy to watch: an enchanting, big hearted, supremely loveable piece of whimsical animation and nimble stagecraft. Its creators are director Barrie Kosky, illustrator Paul Barritt and writer Suzanne Andrade of the theatre company 1927; it was first staged in 2012 at the Komische Oper Berlin and has already become a bit of a sensation at home and abroad. There are the makings of a classic here. Just as Bedlam will forever be crosshatched cubicles for anyone who saw David Hockney’s designs of The Rake’s Progress, so Barritt’s image of The Queen of Night as a knife-throwing cosmic arachnid will be hard to dislodge.

And yet Kosky once said he would never stage Mozart’s Singspiel opera, convinced that the spoken parts were a director’s graveyard. His solution is to make a 1920s-style silent film with captioned dialogue against an accompaniment of Mozart fortepiano fantasias. Personally I miss the speech: those boomy voices and slightly stilted delivery are an integral part of Songspiel’s sonic mix. Without their dialogue the characters have little room to develop — but then, this is an opera of archetype, caricature and symbolism. Crucially, the pacing is superb, full of visual invention but never frenetic and always still at points of emotional crux.

When I first saw the production at the Komische I worried that the musical performance was restricted by the film, despite 900 live cues that make the movie tick on the night. This time I worried less. Conductor Kristiina Poska summoned flexibility and bright spirit in the pit — some of the Komische orchestral playing was rough-edged but the energy was right, and give me that over polite cleanliness any day. The cast isn’t starry but it is solid. Allan Clayton is wonderful as a rich-voiced, impassioned Tamino. Olga Pudova’s Queen is immaculate and airy; Maureen McKay warmed up into a tender Pamina and Dominik Koninger is a robust, lively Papageno.

But star of the show is Barritt’s animation. His is a whole world of marvellous mechanical winged creatures and pink elephants that reference vaudeville and steam punk and Weimar expressionism. Papageno is styled on Buster Keaton, Monostatos on Nosferatu, Pamina on Louise Brooks. Delighted gasps went up from the audience at bespectacled butterflies and magic bells done up as leggy cabaret girls (belles!) who bewitch Monostatos into a crossdressed daze. One of the things this production does so brilliantly is to take down the opera’s inherent misogyny with an artillery of sheer cuteness. It would be hard not to be charmed.