Ah, technology! First, filmgoers witnessed a human detective solve a murder by a cartoon rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Then, Broadway patrons watched human actors dressed in animal costumes and puppets perform in the stage musical version of Disney’s “The Lion King.” Saturday night, April 12, 2014, opera enthusiasts experienced the Minnesota Opera’s season finale with the Komische Oper Berlin’s multimedia production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
Not that Mozart would have minded such artistic invention. As a member of the Freemasons and a musician who catered to the fancies of 18th century Vienna’s cultured elite, he would have appreciated the innovations Suzanne Andrade, Paul Barritt, and Barrie Kosky of the 1927 theater company made to his comic fantasy opera. Their screen-animated dialog, cavorting cats, and flitting fairies combined the whimsy of Max Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series, the magic of Felix the Cat, and the immediacy of silent film subtitles to embellish the mix of song and spoken word that characterizes German Singspiel opera.
And yet…. Art is most effective when the audience is least aware of the artistry, such as the apparent effortlessness of Fred Astaire’s dancing. In Saturday’s version of “The Magic Flute,” the animation, despite its many delightful qualities, exposed the efforts of the human actors trying to work within it. The chase sequences forced them to run in place. The duets often situated them on opposite sides of the stage. With movement and expressiveness constricted to the confines of a spotlight projected against a curtain, the human acting and singing appeared static, isolated, and secondary. The animation’s refreshing inventiveness in the first act fails to clarify the perplexing set of trials suffered by the protagonists in the didactic second act.
For these reasons, Andrew Wilkowske (Papageno) came off best because his bird catcher role was the most cartoon-like. Leads Julien Behr (Tamino) and Christie Hageman Conover (Pamina) sang and performed staunchly as the love interests. Jennnifer O’Loughlin (evil Queen) and Christian Zaremba (High Priest Sarastro) met the challenging vocal demands of their respective arias while Tricia Van Ee, Bergen Baker, and Victoria Vargas delighted as the Three Ladies. The rest of the cast performed ably in supporting roles.
Innovative performances of classic artistic works always run the risk of disapproval, particularly by composers as iconic as Mozart. A genre rich in tradition as high opera needs innovation or becomes ossified in practice and public perception. Despite many sterling qualities, this multimedia production of “The Magic Flute” remains a mixed bag—filled with animated delights that don’t always embellish the artistic efforts of its human performers.