There’s hardly an operatic work in the canon that’s more popular than Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which is to opera what Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream is to classical theater or Disney is to film. In fact, it’s a wonder Disney has never snapped up Die Zauberflöte and re-envisioned it with talking birds, singing musical instruments, and 3-D.
Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s new production of the 1791 classic at Sottile Theatre accomplishes nearly the same thing. Before I saw it, I knew only that the reviews have been positive, in the same way that evangelical Christians are positive on Jesus. However I’d noted a buzz of dissent on the streets. One friend whose tastes admittedly run to the tropospheric dryly pronounced it “gimmicky.” I’d dismissed this at the time, chalking it up to a bluestocking’s disregard for anything popular.
But then I saw The Magic Flute, and I realized “gimmicky” is not only spot-on but probably understating the issue. Stones drop from the fly gallery above the stage. Fireworks pop across the proscenium. The flute makes an entrance "floating" on strings of monofilament, and people dressed in animal costumes lumber around the stage like something out of a high school production of the Nativity. Papageno makes his entrance carrying a cage full of live cockatoos. Near the beginning, a bowling-ball-shaped bomb with a burning fuse straight out of Tom & Jerry gets tossed. It's one visual zinger after another, and the result is a knee-slapping hoot and a holler. After every schticky bit, the audience broke into requisite applause, drowning out the music and the cast, whose roles in this production seem secondary to that of the special effects, which, in the end, weren’t terribly special.
An unrelated but no less interesting side note: when was the last time a white man in blackface appeared on the Sottile Stage miming the rape of a white woman? Anyone?