In Mozart, there's often this sense that the rules are for everyone else. In the composer's most popular opera, the music seems to go where it wants when it wants, laws of man and nature be damned. It's not for nothing that it's called The Magic Flute.
Directors have long tried to capture this musical-magical realism in stagecraft. But no production has probably liberated itself from physical limitations the way the current one imported by Opera Philadelphia to the Academy of Music does. Conceived by the U.K. theater company 1927, the production was brought in by Opera Philadelphia as the big draw for its inaugural fall festival, O17.
The main visual element is a giant white wall, and if it looks something like a movie screen — well, it is. Sets don't exist physically, but are projected in animation around live singers. Sometimes the characters themselves are animated — not just a recurring cat and other beasts, but also a Queen of the Night who exists physically on stage only as a live singing head peeking through a hole high atop the stage while her body, blandished into spidery form by animators, thrashes about and hurls daggers.
Are the creators so in love with their own freedom that they sometimes trounce Mozart's music? Yes. But heard at its opening Friday night — it runs four more times through Sept. 24 — this production also has many moments like the Queen of the Night's, where the music and visuals speak to each other in smart ways. Daggers are seen and, in those infamously daggerlike high notes, heard.
It is also true that the music somehow recedes in importance in this production, and I'm not sure it's only because of the vivid, busy animation. There's a lot going on orchestrally in this piece, and you rarely felt that the opera company's pit orchestra was able to have the kind of presence it should have — or even have the commanding presence of the excellent chorus (at ear level in the Academy's audience boxes). David Charles Abell favored quick tempos, which sometimes glossed over instrumental sonorities or trenchant harmonic progressions that, when brought out, are great clues to story and character.
There is a film antecedent, of course, to this Magic Flute, one that goes deep into characterization: Ingmar Bergman's 1975 take with a young Håkan Hagegård as birdman Papageno. That version was all about close-ups that peer into motives and emotion.
The current production, co-directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky, does little to underline the beauty of the language or virtue of the messages. Instead of the speaking-only sections, 1927 moves the story along with words projected on screen. Characters in these sections are mute while excerpts from Mozart piano fantasies are played at an unseen fortepiano by Renate Rohlfing. A human element is lost, and perhaps this was the point.
The general aesthetic, though, is appealing. It's Mozart by way of Monty Python by way of Edward Gorey. One section was particularly handsome and meaningful. In Act II, full of doubt about Tamino's love for her, Pamina's music is echoed visually by clocks, and through the music and animation, you feel her feeling time slip away.
It must put a singer off-kilter to be popping out of holes and doors and to have a movie projection shining in your face the whole night, but equanimity was the order of the day. Maybe no more so than for the three boy spirits – A.J. Owens, Damian Ferraro, and Patrick Corcoran – whose voices were models of purity (adorable, with no concession to intonation). It is, in fact, a strong and even cast, though with no towering standouts. Queen of the Night Olga Pudova had the notes. More expressive risks might come later in the run, but Ben Bliss as Tamino and Rachel Sterrenberg were solid and charming, as was Jarrett Ott as Papageno.
The star, though, is the animation. The Magic Flute can withstand great manipulation and still come through with its spirit intact. This one does that much, and often much more. If it's the Mozart you come for, though, put on a recording, and just sit still. The music does the rest.
Additional performances Sept. 17, 20, 22, and 24 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.