Its always risky business to update a classic. Opera Theatre of St. Louis is well aware of the risks involved in such an endeavor — nonetheless they persevered, and added one of Mozart’s most popular operas to their 39th season.
Reimagined by fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, this production of The Magic Flute is a daring break from the traditional. It is set on a Hollywood sound stage of the 1950s, an interesting choice that gives this rendition access to all of the glitz and glamor of that era. The stage is soaked in bright colors: the flamboyant blues, yellows and greens that Mizrahi has selected for the costumes and set make a statement that this production is as vibrant and energetic as a Hollywood musical. Complementing the color is a Tinseltown dose of sass in the form of the ensemble and a troupe of dancers.
The story centers on a handsome prince named Tamino, who has been recruited by The Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the clutches of the diabolical Sarastro, the High Priest of the Sun. When Tamino sees a portrait of the princess, he is instantly smitten and agrees to rescue her.
Tenor Sean Panikkar is at the center of this production. As Tamino he is heroic and dashing, channeling the panache of the Golden Age’s biggest stars. He gives the prince a fragility not seen in most modern interpretations. Meanwhile, Claire de Sevigny plays The Queen of the Night with a sophisticated aloofness that adds to the mystery of her character. Every piece of her performance recalls that golden age of screen sirens like Dietrich or Garbo.
Matthew Anchel clearly enjoys playing the bad guy. In his hands Sarastro is a seriously creepy dude who will stop at nothing to get his way. Elizabeth Zharoff is a star on the rise as Pamina. Her chemistry with Panikkar is electric, and she brings new layers to one of the most familiar characters in opera. Her performance is stunning. Levi Hernandez’s turn as the bird watcher Papageno is refreshingly bright. Mozart wrote him as the character that propels the action on stage. Although Papageno is a comedic character, his actions border on the heroic.
The Magic Flute is as interesting as it is confounding. There’s no real ending in the traditional sense, and each of the characters clearly pursues a personal agenda, making each more a shade of grey than black or white. Mizrahi has also utilized Masonic imagery in his version, a play on the fact that Mozart, a mason himself, sprinkled its symbolism throughout the opera. Mizrahi, in turn, amps it up, making Masonic iconography the centerpiece of the set and costume design.
Tan, rested and ready, Opera Theatre of St Louis has given a complete makeover to its production of The Magic Flute. Sashaying around tradition and staging it with unrelenting boldness, the company’s take-no-prisoner attitude captures the quintessential essence of a big time Hollywood production. The dancers hit their marks and offer a nice change of pace from the staid. Splashy, sophisticated and uncompromising, this is a new production of an old classic with a bright new coat of paint.