Review: The Magic Scarfe – “Zauberflöte” at the San Francisco Opera, October 13, 2007

In the third week of October 2005 Pamela Rosenberg, still General Director of the San Francisco Opera, was minding the dress rehearsals for a borrowed physical production of Bellini’s “Norma” so tacky that Rosenberg, with the candor that might be her most likeable feature, told the San Francisco press that she wished she had had enough money for a better production.

Her announced successor, David Gockley, who clearly had different priorities for the venerable company’s future seasons, was surely even then planning to schedule a presentation in San Francisco of one of his great triumphs at the Houston Grand Opera, the Maurice Sendak production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”.

In Miami, the Florida Grand Opera was battening down the hatches for the arrival of Hurricane Wilma, which was to prove to be the third most destructive hurricane to hit the United States in history. Florida survived Wilma, just as San Francisco Opera survived the Rosenberg years.

Gockley announced the Sendak “Magic Flute” for the Fall 2007 San Francisco Opera season. In the interim, the Portland Opera also arranged with the current owners of the Sendak production, the Florida Grand Opera, to let them show it in the Rose City before it traveled to the Bay Area. (It had been shown at Opera Colorado in Denver in the Fall of 2006.)

It turned out that Wilma wreaked havoc on the Sendak sets and costumes. When the production crew in Portland opened the boxes, there was mold on and disintegration of both the sets and costumes. Over the years, the Florida Grand Opera had purchased the sets and stored them in a warehouse in the hurricane’s floodpath. No one seemed to have been aware at the time that Wilma had damaged the Sendak sets. (A very prominent member of the San Francisco Opera administration said he later became aware that when Opera Colorado did use the sets in Fall 2006, the stagehands there required that protective gear be given them to handle them.)

[Below: the final scene of the Gerald Scarfe production of “Magic Flute” with Georg Zeppenfeld (Sarastro) in the foreground and Piotr Beczala (Tamino) and Dina Kuznetsova (Pamina) above; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Soon Gockley was alerted. For the second time since Gockley’s accession to power in San Francisco, he was able to tap the increasingly imposing collection of productions owned by the Los Angeles Opera (the Hockney “Tristan” sets, replacing an unsatisfactory alternative originally chosen by Rosenberg).

Unlike the Hockney “Tristan”, however, the L. A. “Flute” was one with which Gockley had past associations. L. A.’s Gerald Scarfe production had been shown at the Houston Grand Opera in 1997. This provided a vehicle for Mary Dunleavy’s Queen of the Night, which she performed in San Francisco in 2001 in San Francisco Opera’s David Hockney production.

Curiously, this was the second time that a San Francisco Opera General Director felt compelled to make a change in a production of “Magic Flute” after the season was announced. In 1980, in the year prior to Kurt Herbert Adler’s valedictory season, he had planned to import a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of the opera, but learned that the scenes with Monostatos and his men were conceived of as minstrel show with Monostatos and choristers in blackface.

Although Adler had always been a Ponnelle champion, he decided that it would be wise to cancel a commitment he knew much of his audience would regard as tasteless and insensitive (even in 1980, some opera productions that played in Europe would have been unwelcome in San Francisco) and to borrow in its place the beautiful and non-controversial Marc Chagall production from New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

None of the multimedia talents of Gerald Scarfe had been utilized by the San Francisco Opera in its previous history, so the 71 year old Scarfe, as production designer for the “Magic Flute”, was listed as one of the 2007 season’s debut artists.

[Below: Artist/Designer Gerald Scarfe; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

His creative talents are better known in Los Angeles, in part because two of his productions – Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” (in 1988) and the Scarfe production of “Flute” (whose premiere was in Los Angeles in 1992) – were mounted by the Los Angeles Opera.

But Scarfe has two other claims on the attention of the L. A. entertainment elites – one, the fact that the Disney corporation had chosen him as the production designer for their 1997 full-length cartoon “Hercules” (one of the last few of the old style of Disney’s full length animated features, before its Pixar alliance revolutionized the genre) . The other claim was as one of the trio of contentious collaborators (with rockstar Roger Waters and movie director Alan Parker) who created the 1982 British epic anti-war rock music film “Pink Floyd: the Wall”.

There are links in the film to the childhoods of the “Pink Floyd” collaborators. Roger Waters’ father had been a Royal Fusilier who had died at Anzio during the disastrous German counter-attack on the British forces who had seemed to have secured an area of the Italian coastline. His death happened when Waters was an infant. Scarfe, a slightly older boy suffering from chronic asthma, continuously experienced the German bombing of Britain, with a vivid memory of his dislike of having to wear gas masks.

Waters’ film, only partly autobiographical, is a fantasy that links the father dying at Anzio with the fatherless boy becoming a rock-star (named Pink Floyd), entering into an unhappy marriage, becoming increasingly alienated to the point of psychosis, and ultimately becoming leader of a Nazi-like (i.e.., the people whose wars led to his father’s death) mass movement.

Scarfe created approximately a quarter hour of animation to accompany Waters’ rock anthems in a cinematic experience that often has the feel of certain late 20th century operas designed for presentation in multimedia productions. (I can imagine an enterprising opera company commissioning a reworking of the Pink Floyd material to create such an opera.)

In the animated part of the film, the cartoons provide symbols of war – innocent looking birds turn into the nationalistic German eagle, which then becomes a German bomber; a white cross on a soldier’s grave becomes a stream of blood that drips into a storm drain. The fascist movement is symbolized by crossed claw-hammers. Scarfe’s images are of thousands of claw hammers eerily marching in formation.

The Scarfe cartoons also comment on the sexual battleground between Pink and his estranged wife – two flowers turn towards each other, then engage in obviously anthropomorphic copulation that ends badly for the male flower; the shadow of Pink’s wife turns into the shadow of a preying mantis that attacks him.

Scarfe’s “Pink Floyd” animation displays the dark side of his talent, in the way that his production designs for Disney’s “Hercules” and the operatic productions “Orpheus in the Underworld” and “Magic Flute” display the light.

Scarfe immediately immerses us in his concept for “Zauberflöte”. We focus on a gray pyramid, and beyond it a stormy blue sky, which turns red. Tamino (Piotr Beczala), dressed in a long-sleeved, red-trimmed white tunic, his red hair matching his gloves, is chased by a giant red serpent.

[Below: Christopher Maltman is Papageno; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The three ladies (Elza van den Heever, Kendall Gladen and Katherine Tier) that kill the monster serpent are dressed in costumes that swirl about them. Papageno (Christopher Maltman) has a white face and multi-plumed hair of predominantly orange and yellow hues.

These five principals are vocally impressive, with Beczala (whom San Francisco Opera had seen Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”) worth special mention for a nicely sung Dies Bildnis.

[Below: Piotr Beczala as Tamino; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Then the pyramid splits, and the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa), in a deus ex machina moment, descends from the starry sky on a silver-streaked and black-webbed disk. Her headdress is a glittering crescent moon.

Miklosa is one of the most famous contemporary interpreters of the Koenigen. However, granting that she presented a technically noteworthy performance of the first of her two coloratura blockbusters, Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren, the production worked against a voice that was not large enough to project effectively from the point high above mid-stage from which she was required to sing.

[Below: The Three Ladies (Elza van den Heever, Kendall Gladen and Katherine Tier) provide accoutrements to Tamino (Piotr Beczala) and Papageno (Christopher Maltman), while a pelican boat containing three genii sails above them; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

After Tamino and Papageno receive their magic flute and bells, the three boys, each dressed in a powdered wig and a late baroque-style child’s suits to suggest the prodigy Mozart (but wearing contemporary shades), arrive in a boat shaped like a pelican that floats above the stage.

[Below: Greg Fedderly is Monostatos; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The next scene is a building that reminds one of a Moorish interior. Monostatos (in another memorable performance by character tenor Greg Fedderly) is costumed as if he is a man cross-hybridized with some new species of lumpy green amphibian, as are his corps of eunuchs.

Pamina (Dina Kuznetsova, originally scheduled only for later performances, but adding the rest of the Paminas when Rebecca Evans became unavailable) sits on a large pillow that functions as a sofa, dressed in white wearing a red headdress in the classical Greek style. Her duet with Maltman’s Papageno was endearing.

The pyramid splits and now becomes two temple doors. A third pyramid rolls in. With the three Young Mozarts guiding the way, Tamino enters into his career-changing dialogue with the Speaker (Philip Skinner, as a surprise replacing the originally announced Eric Jordan for the first of two roles he was scheduled to sing in the performance), donning a red robe, purple headdress and beard.

[Below: Piotr Beczala (Tamino) attracts Scarfe animals with the flute sound; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

When Papageno and Tamino begin the grasp the power of the bells and flute, eight extraordinary animals from Scarfe’s imagination amble onto the stage. All are exotic hybrids of two unalike creatures – e.g., a giraffe crossed with an ostrich, a crocodile with a penguin – and are the most vivid characteristic of the production.

[Below: Animals attracted to the sound of the magic flute; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The costumes for the animals (as had all the Scarfe sets and costumes) underwent extensive refurbishing and replacement for the San Francisco performances, and, on this opening night of the production, a kaleidoscope of color shone brilliantly, complemented, of course, by the lumpy green world of Monostatos and his kin.

[Below: Sarastro (Georg Zeppenfeld) and his priests and priestesses; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

This evening was the American debut of Georg Zeppenfeld, a German light basso who proved to be a baritonal sounding Sarastro, but one whose range contained the requisite low F. He travels on an orange and yellow-green chariot pulled by six specimens of another species who are half lion, half man. Each of the residual half-pyramids (both part of the original pyramid), have seats for the chorus of priests to sit upon as Sarastro seeks the blessing of Osiris and Isis.

Then the pyramid becomes a staircase, which splits to allow the three ladies, carrying torches, to walk through. Their mission to get Tamino and Papageno re-focused towards their original objectives now in shambles, they at least engage them in the superb quintet. Fedderly shows himself to be a superb comedian as Monostatos, with the vocal skills to pull off the tricky Alles fuehlt der Liebe Freuden.

[Below left: the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa) confronts her daughter Pamina (Dina Kuznetsova); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Miklosa, now blocked closer to the footlights, is in better position to project her voice for the coloratura fireworks of “Der Hoelle Rache”.

More magic Scarfe images appear: the expected Masonic references – Egyptian hieroglyphics and calipers at the top of a pyramid of steps – and unexpected images – giant feet, striped black and gray, later turning orange and brown. Kuznetsova delivers an affecting and expressive “Ach ich fuehl’s”. The priests arrive carrying lanterns that are small pyramids on crooked staffs. Maltman (and the audience) has great fun with Papageno’s “Ein Maedchen oder Weibchen” and the running gag about his pursuit of a multi-plumed Papagena (Rhoslyn Jones).

The two armored men (Richard Walker and Eric Jordan) are dressed in red and encased in carapaces, rather like lobsters. For the actual trials by fire and water, the central pyramid becomes a scrim through which is seen first a blazing fire and then waves of water. As Pamina and Tamino ascend the staircase, the pelican boat sails through the air and the Three Mozarts drop petals on the new initiates. Soon Monostatos, the three ladies and the Queen of the Night have created a new alliance of villains, but Sarastro forgives their mischief.

[Below: Georg Zeppenfeld is Sarastro; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The person with responsibility for realizing Scarfe’s magic on stage was Director Stanley M. Garner, who, of course, had Sir Peter Hall’s playbook from the production’s Los Angeles premiere 15 years ago. The person with responsibility for realizing Mozart’s magic was Conductor Donald Runnicles, who led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, chorus and an impressive cast in yet enough triumph.

[Below: the final scene of “The Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

We may never agree on what Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder intended by the fantastic symbology in this indestructible work, but the particular world on which Mozart and Schikaneder had strong opinions has vanished, and what is left is a vessel that invites the kind of imagineering (to borrow a phrase from Scarfe’s once upon a time employer, Disney Corporation) that we have in his approach to the work. What has not vanished is good and evil, and the power of reconciliation between old enemies (a theme also of Glass’ “Appomattox”, the very different opera which was in rotation with “The Magic Flute” for much of October 2007).

It’s an ill wind that blows not even a tiny bit of good, and Hurricane Wilma, however lamentable its destructiveness in South Florida, and the grief it caused the Sendak sets, was more than indirectly responsible for San Francisco Opera finally associating with Gerald Scarfe’s biting wit and limitless genius.

In a three-season period whose middle season included the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, San Francisco Opera has presented Mozart’s four most enduring works. Hyperlinks to the reviews of the other three productions are presented here:

Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007

S. F. “Nozze di Figaro” – July 2, 2006

Warhorse Warriors: John Cox’ “Cosi Fan Tutte” in S. F. – July 2, 2005