Friday, March 09, 2012

The Manga Flute, West Edge Opera

I went to the first performance of West Edge Opera's The Manga Flute, an adaptation of The Magic Flute with a new English libretto by David Scott Marley. Marley has written several adaptations for West Edge (former Berkeley) Opera, including the extremely funny Riot Grrrl on Mars and Bat Out of Hell. If they are ever revived, you should go see them. (I here disclose that I've known Scott for 20-odd years and am not quite sure how to refer to him in this write-up. As Marley? As Scott? As "the librettist"? So take pity on me just a bit as I fumble around.)

This particular adaptation takes the familiar story of The Magic Flute and reimagines it in the Japanese manga/anime style. The sets are simple: a few props moved around by the characters, and projections on screens behind the stage, mostly onto vertical panels on the left that resemble Japanese scrolls, but also onto a freestanding oval to the right. The projections are in manga style and beautifully done, by artist Megan Willis. Some are static scenery, but there's a story told in a series of projections at the beginning.

The new libretto reframes the story to remove the Masonic elements (or most of them, anyway) and to take the religious and sexist loading off the conflict between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. A few characters are renamed, too. The Three Boys become the Three Raccoons; played by three teenage girls, they move and act a lot like the masked thieves, and are completely charming.

Monostatos becomes Moss, loses his dark skin, and gains both a backstory and a crutch. The latter is not explicitly explained, though its origin can be inferred from the new backstory. While I am always glad when modern adapters and directors discard the ugly racist portrayal of the character, I was nonplussed by the crutch, a swap of one visible difference for another. It just didn't seem necessary or strongly motivated; it's not the most interesting change in the character, either, and was a bit of a distraction.

Tamino is now a young Japanese stockbroker; as the opera opens, he's being washed up on an unknown island after being blown off course during an afternoon sail. Pamina is...well, a bit of a teeny-bopper, wearing an outfit short of Japanese goth, but with blue hair.

The story is reframed, and some of the arias are shuffled around as a result, to reasonable effect. "In diesem heil'gen Hallen" comes rather later in the opera now, and "O Isis und Osiris" is gone completely. I was startled to hear the duet of the two armed men reframed as a duet for Tamino and Papageno, but in context it made perfect sense.

Not so sensible was the rewrite of "Ein Maedchen oder Weibchen," Papageno's aria, as a duet for him and Papagena. The old lady is unmasked rather early in their brief scene together, they sing the duet (and Papagena scolds him in it rather a lot), then she disappears. For me, this took away much of the charm and dramatic force of their ultimate reunion and union, because they've already spent so much time together. It works better when he has just that tiny glimpse of her.

I might as well admit that Papageno is my favorite character in the opera - isn't he everyone's? In the original, he's the human; everyone else is an archetype. Noble prince, kidnapped maiden, upstanding religious leader, fiery witch. Papageno is the working-class everyman. (And we all know what happened when Strauss & Hoffmansthal got their hands on this story, right? Perhaps West Edge Opera could do an adaptation that deals with all the offensive elements of....oh, maybe not.)

ANYWAY. West Edge's production is blessed with a genuinely wonderful Papageno, in the person of Eugene Brancoveanu. I haven't heard him in a couple of years, and after this week, I'm astonished that he isn't singing in the majors on a regular basis. A beautiful and brilliant lyric baritone, funny and charming presence, looks - he has it all, and he shone in this role. Heidi Moss Sali was a lovely Pamina, and caught the teen-aged angst and rebellion just right.

Darron Flagg has a good voice and negotiated Tamino's music reasonably well; he was a funny stockbroker and managed the transformation to Sarastro's acolyte convincingly. Elyse Nakajima made an impressive Queen Starfire; Clifton Romig acted well but was a bit wobbly-voiced as her estranged husband Sarastro. Keith Perry was a sympathetic Moss, Lori Schulman a delightful Papapapagena. George Killingsworth ably filled the mostly-speaking role of Foxclaw (the Sprecher). Melody King, Kathleen Moss (no relation to Heidi Moss Sali), and Rebecca Krouner were characterful as the Three Ladies. Charlotte Khuner,  Catherine Scanlon, and Sofia Chandler-Freed could not have been bettered as the charming and wiley Raccoons.

The staging and acting are excellent all around; big kudos to director Caroline Altman. I do wish the Queen of the Night didn't just stroll on stage: her entrance music demands something more impressive than that. I don't expect this company to fly her in, but given their level of ingenuity, I am sure they could do better. Jonathan Khuner's conducting was strong and sympathetic, as usual; I wish the company were using a different reduction, though, as Christopher Fecteau's winds-and-keyboard reduction loses too much timbal differentiation for me. Bring back the string section!

All in all, it was a lovely afternoon. This is going up too late for tonight's 8 p.m. performance, but if you're free Sunday afternoon, catch the 3 p.m. performance (and remember: daylight savings time starts Sunday at 2 a.m.! Spring forward!).


john_burke100 said...

Long ago I read that the morning after "Magic Flute" premiered, the Vienna hurdy-gurdy players were all doing "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen." Then I looked up the Beethoven "Kakadu" Variations and found that the theme, another simple ditty, was from a Singspiel called "Die Schwester von Prag." (It's basically "Charlie's Aunt"--widower can't decide which suitor his daughter should marry, defers the decision to his sister from Prague, each suitor's comic servant gets up in drag to impersonate her.) It turns out that a hummable, hurdy-gurdy-able tune was a standard Singspiel element, like the big first act closer in a Broadway musical; Beethoven in a typical move (cf. "Diabelli" Variations) makes it the basis of a semi-serious, semi-jocular piano trio movement.)

Lisa Hirsch said...

That sounds like great fun!

And I can believe every hurdy-gurdy player was doing "Ein Maedchen"!

John Marcher said...

I too am puzzled by Brancoveanu's career and have thought the same thing after seeing him recently in a couple of different things. He keeps popping up in wonderfully quirky places (like "Machine" at the Crucible) that on the one hand make me think he's really just interested in a variety of work, but on the other, he often eclipses everyone else on stage with his comparatively out-sized talents and abilities.

I agree he really should be singing in the major houses and wonder why he's not. He's going to be one of the singers in SF Lyric Opera's upcoming "the little match girl passion" later this month.

john_burke100 said...

That trio is fun. Big, serious (or mock-serious) intro in G minor, then the "Kakadu" theme which always reminds me of the Monty Python lumberjack song, then a series of variations including about two pages of really great music, then lumberjack da capo. I don't know why it isn't programmed oftener--audiences eat it up.