Theater Review | Boston Lyric Opera creates modern retelling of ‘Magic Flute’
Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 07:10
Men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns flocked to the Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre the night of Oct. 4 to attend the opening night gala for The Boston Lyric Opera’s (BLO) premiere of “The Magic Flute.” The black tie affair lent an air of easy elegance to the cool, early autumn evening. When four jean and hoodie-clad figures trooped in, the newcomers — to an outside eye — must have appeared hopelessly underdressed.
However, these four informally dressed characters were actually part of the night’s entertainment. An English adaptation of Mozart’s classic work, the BLO’s production of “The Magic Flute” features a modernized plot and up-to-date lyrics. In this rendition, college student Tommy (a role traditionally called “Tamino,” here played by Zach Borichevsky) and his friends travel to the Mayan ruins together. When Tommy is bitten by a venomous snake, his hallucinations take over, sending the group into the mysterious and magical world of gods and legends.
While this may seem like a dramatic and possibly blasphemous rewrite of a beloved opera, it is definitely not the opera’s first adaptation. BLO dramaturge Magda Romanska noted in a post on the company’s blog, “In The Wings,” that since its creation in Vienna during the Age of Enlightenment, “The Magic Flute” has seen many transformations. According to Cornell Professor Neal Zaslaw, who was interviewed by Romanska, the first changes were likely made almost immediately after its creation. Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto of “The Magic Flute,” periodically made changes to the work for around two decades after Mozart’s death, which occurred almost exactly two months after the opera’s premiere.
“The Magic Flute” has been continuously re-worked since the 18th century, although basic elements of the text have been preserved — such as the Enlightenment ideals of careful moderation and the pursuit of reason, and a more sinister set of rituals thought to be associated with the Free Masons. Though a history of change perhaps invites a liberal interpretation of the term “creative license,” for the BLO, the production of this iconic work was not without its own set of difficulties.
“The challenge of retelling Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ for today’s audience is to find the story’s context in contemporary society,” stage director Leon Major said in an article on onedgeptown.com. To his credit, the BLO’s production did a reasonably good job of making “The Magic Flute” relatable. The plain English feel of the lyrics, complete with the occasional slang term, made the plot easy to follow, and the revamped premise was both believable and humorous. By removing obstacles of context and language, the didactic themes of the work — which urge viewers to think critically about and value knowledge and emotion — shone through loud and clear.
One downfall of this simplified approach to “The Magic Flute,” however, was a lack of complexity that likely left those already familiar with Mozart’s work disappointed. At times, informal lyrics gave audience members the impression that the opera was being “dumbed down” instead of modernized, and the somewhat distilled plot of the piece sagged slightly in the second act. Ideally, a production should not have to sacrifice content in order to be avant-garde. Most contemporary audiences are capable of understanding complexity, even if a work is more than 200 years old.
Despite some changes, this production of “The Magic Flute” did include certain standard elements of traditional opera. In these aspects, the BLO delivered completely. Borichevsky’s wonderful voice provided a solid foundation, and Andrew Garland (Papageno) added a delightful playfulness with his light song. So Young Park (Queen of the Night) stole the show, thrilling the audience with her extraordinary vocal range.
The accompanying orchestra was flawless as it played Mozart’s recognizable score, identical to his original written in the 1700s. Rich costumes and lush, turquoise and gold scenery were wonderful visual treats. The set, in particular, became a character itself as it shifted with the action of the opera, captivating the audience’s interest throughout.
Overall, the BLO’s “The Magic Flute” was a delightful and adventurous production, and anything but expected. As stated by general and artistic director Esther Nelson in the same edgeptown.com article, the BLO’s production aimed to be “not only relevant to the human experience, but to our youth,” and in this, it succeeded immensely.