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The action in this production takes place in an interior space with gray, windowless walls and heavy steel doors. It looks like how you might imagine the basement of a nuclear power plant. The serpent that Tamino encounters in the first scene is not one big snake, but rather a plague of normal-sized ones, attacking not just him but a bunch of other people. They are all dressed in very ordinary every-day clothing.
In fact, it’s probably worth noting that there are a few extra people in this story in addition to these people on the stage. It is revealed that Pamina is not Monostatos’s only captive – lost in a room somewhere in the maze of gray walls that we see, there are three women in slips, who reveal through their conversation that since Pamina has escaped Monostatos, they hope to be rescued soon too. When the three magic boys are first introduced we do not see them at all – but a little later, Tamino encounters not three boys, but a whole chorus of consumptive-looking children petting ravens. When Tamino tries the doors to three temples – each of which is labeled Traforaum: transformer room – what emerges from the first is a patient on a gurney, surrounded by doctors, and a whole crowd of people tumble out of the second and then hustle back in again. Later on, Tamino and Papageno (Reuben Drole) find themselves in what appears to be the food storage area of Sarastro’s operation – there are flats of canned goods and other food, like in a warehouse. The impression all this gives is of a dream-like warren of gray rooms in which all kinds of strange things are happening at once.
And I say strange rather than sinister for a reason. The feel of this production is perhaps darker than your typical Magic Flute, but the impressions is “gray and strange and dreamlike” rather than “grim and utterly terrifying.” For example, when we first meet Papageno, he is not catching birds. Rather, he’s in a cage himself, the floor of which is covered in old feathers. The shoulders of his coat are streaked with bird crap, and Papageno himself is pretty grimy, as we see later on when he strips down to his long-johns. With him in the cage is a dead tree.
This seems sort of sad and awful, but somehow Papageno’s “der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” aria does not feel out of place. For one thing, the orchestral playing is so good that even if you don’t like the way it looks, it’s hard not to enjoy how it sounds – the first phrases of the introduction leap out in a way that seems completely perfect. And Drole both here and elsewhere sings with such a nice sound and so much personality that it’s impossible not to enjoy this performance. But this isn’t a “it looks awful but sounds great” type of situation. Somehow this character and this music seem to belong where they are, even though he’s in a cage. And he can get out – the cage has a door. Papageno’s clothes (white shirt, dark jacket and trousers) are a grimy version of Tamino’s black suit, and when they first meet, they mirror one another’s actions from opposite sides of the mesh wall of the cage. Papageno is on the edge of being Tamino’s dirty, always-hungry alter ego.
Similar to this “you think it would be awful but it isn’t” introduction of Papageno, there is the introduction to the second act. Here, before the action begins, we see more gray rooms, and in one of them – it is passed by without explanation – are still figures in black, sprawled on the floor, with white gauze wrapped around their heads. And yet this somehow seems to mesh with the way the music sounds. I don’t know quite how to describe it. But this production seems to me to get at some of the strange, bewildering aspects of this opera in a fairly effective way.
And some portions approach the whimsical. During Papageno’s “ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” the lights above the steel doors blink like Christmas lights in time to the bells. Along similar lines, Tamino does not play the flute – it is given to him in sections, and when he puts them together, the music begins. But he has to put them together in the right order: at one point, he tries a few times and doesn’t get it right, and the music comes out wrong. Tamino and Pamina’s trials would be unrecognizable to an eighteenth-century audience: for fire, they must walk through a room full of barrels of gasoline, some of which has been spilled, while Pamina holds a lit match, and for water, they have to struggle out of a car that has been dropped into a swimming pool. There is a consistency of tone about this whole thing that works for me. It’s dream-like, but it’s a grown-up dream.
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