Review: Barrie Kosky’s Production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” – San Francisco Opera, June 2, 2024

For the past dozen years, Australian director Barrie Kosky’s production of Mozart’s last opera, “The Magic Flute” (Die Zauberflöte) has traveled widely, being performed by opera companies large and small worldwide.

I covered the Kosky production’s 2013 American premiere at the Los Angeles Opera [Review: Outrageously Inventive, Unceasingly Entertaining – Kosky/Andrade/Barritt’s Silent Movie “Magic Flute” Wows L. A. – Los Angeles Opera, November 23, 2013]. This website has also reported on Its revivals in Los Angeles in 2016 [Review: Beautiful Singing from a Silent Screen “Magic Flute” – Los Angeles Opera, February 24, 2016] and 2019 [Review: A Youthful Cast Excels in Los Angeles Opera “Magic Flute” – December 1, 2019].

The extraordinary production is based on concepts developed by the British partnership of Suzanne Andrade (listed as Kosky’s co-producer) and Paul Barritt. These concepts have been discussed in the 2013 American premiere review cited above. Rather than recounting them in this review, my focus will be on the artistic performances (primarily vocal, but noting their tightly choregraphed stage movements required of the artists to make Kosky’s production work).

Emmanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s opera is in German and the opera contains considerable spoken dialogue, Because of the amount of spoken dialogue, separate decisions must be made on whether to include the dialogue, and, if so, in what language.

The performance seen in San Francisco excludes most of the spoken dialogue and performs the opera in German. The two-dimensional, “flat-screen” focus of the production’s scenic design makes this a very different production from “traditional” productions organized around a three-dimensional stage space.

Amitai Pati’s Tamino and Christina Gansch’s Pamina

Samoan-born New Zealand tenor Amitai Pati continues his conquest of the major Mozart tenor roles. He previously impressed me with his Don Ottavio in the Vienna edition of “Don Giovanni” [Review: Dupuis and Pisaroni Lead International Cast for Michael Cavanagh’s New “Don Giovanni” Production – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2022].

Early in “The Magic Flute” Mozart provided a test of the lead tenor’s vocal prowess with the aria Das Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön, introducing Tamino to a portrait of Pamina, who becomes his mate by opera’s end. Pati performed the aria with the expressiveness and breath control that an artist needs to be successful Mozartian.

[Below: Tenor Amitai Pati performed the role of Tamino; edited image, based on a Gareth Bader photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In Kosky’s production, however, an artist needs much more than the ability to sing Mozart’s vocal music properly. The artist must have mastered a complex choreography that requires her or him to be present at precise marks behind or in front of the flat screen. Fantastic images are projected onto the screen, many of which are in motion. Windows and doors open in the screen. An artist must be at a window or at a opening door, sometimes to run in place, other times to take part in a visual or physical gag.

[Below: Amitai Pati as Tamino in Barrie Kosky’s production; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Performing the role of the object of Tamino’s interest, Pamina, was Austrian soprano Christina Gansch. She proved to be the spirited Pamina that Kosky intended, interacting across the succession of on-screen images with Papageno, Tamino, the Queen and Monostatos.

Gansch was impressive vocally as well, notably showing mastery of Pamina’s plaintive (and difficult) showpiece aria Ach, ich fühls.

[Below: Christine Gansch performed the role of Pamina; edited image,based on an Obex M photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This is my third opportunity to review a Gansch performance. I was present at her American debut as Dorinda [Review: A Finely Sung “Orlando” Melds Handel’s Seductive Music with Harry Fehr’s Surreal Staging – San Francisco Opera, June 9, 2019] and also as Zerlina in the “Don Giovanni” cited above.

[Below: Christine Gansch as Pamina in Barrie Kosky’s production; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Lauri Vasar’s Papageno and Anna Siminska’s Queen of the Night

German baritone Lauri Vasar was a vocally sturdy Papageno, and within the confines of the production, presented a likeable portrait of opera’s most celebrated royal birdcatcher. Among the vocal highlights of many “Magic Flute” performances are Papageno’s aria Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, which Vasar performed sympathetically. Papageno’s quest for a wife led to a rousing duet near the opera’s end with Papagena, the mädchen who would become his life partner. Papagena was performed by VIriginia soprano Arianna Rodriguez.

[Below: Lauri Vasar performed the role of Papageno; edited image, based on a publicity photo from Berlin Staatsoper.]

The Kosky production assures that Papageno has some moments of silliness, such as his dancing with toothy tarantulas. What differs from most other productions – especially with spoken dialogue – is the lack of opportunity for the artist’s spontaneous reactions to the bizarre occurrences that Papageno experiences. Often, in a traditional production, such an artist will “break the fourth wall”, to establish a special connection with the audience.

[Below: Lauri Vasar as Papageno in Barrie Kosky’s production; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Polish soprano Anna Siminska dispatched the coloratura fireworks of each of the Queen of the Night’s two arias – the first act Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren and the second act Der Hölle Rache – with the virtuosity one expects of the Star-Blazing Queen.

[Below: Anna Siminska performed the role of the Queen of the Night; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

It was the Queen’s appearance, or more accurately, non-appearance that made this production so different from any of the myriad “Magic Flute” productions. Kosky’s flat panel images metaphorically suggest the Queen is a spider weaving a web, but only her face appears in the panel’s small opening, depriving her of at least the minimal onstage movements assigned to Tamino, Pamima amd Papageno.

[Below: Anna Siminska as the Queen of the Night (above center in front of moon) and Amitai Pati as Tamino (below center, in front of spider web in Barrie Koskys production; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Kwangchui Youn’s Sarastro, Zhengyi Bai’s Monostatos and Other Csst Membe

South Korean bass Kwangchui Youn was a stoic Sarastro, the Queen of the Night’s adversary. Youn was the 1993 winner of Placido Domingo’s Operalia, and for the ensuing decade a member of Berlin Staatsoper. That company awarded Youn the title of Kammersänger in 2018.

[Below: Kwangchui Youn performed the role of Sarastro; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

Sarastro’s realm, often shown in traditional productions as a large, temple complex filled with subjects, is only hinted at in this production.

Below: Kwangchui Youn (left in top hat) is Sarastro in Barrie Kosky’s production; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Rather more attention is paid to Sarastro’s slave Monostatos, performed by Chinese tenor Zhengyi Bai.

[Below: Zhengyi Bai performed the role of Monostatos; edited image, based on a photograph.]

Bai succeeded in creating a vivid impression of the sleazy rogue. Bai’s Monostatos teams with Siminska’s Queen of the Night and her attendant three ladies – Canadian soprano Olivia Smith, Georgia mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon and Washington mezzo-soprano Maire Therese Carmack. Those five try unsuccessfully to derail the binds between Tamino, Pamina and the pair’s mentor, Sarastro.

[Below: Zhengyi Bai as Monostatos in Barrie Kosky’s production; edited image, bsed on a Valentina Sadiul photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Speaker was South Korean bass-baritone Jongwon Han. The Two Armored men were Welsh tenor Thomas Kinch and New York bass-baritone James McCarthy. The Three Spirits (all Californians) were Niko Min, Solar Malik and Jacob A. Rainow.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Presiding over the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was the San Francisco Opera’s music director, South Korean Maestra Eun Sun Kim. After the ominous adagio chords beginning the opera resound, the second violins began the famous, rapid-fire allegro theme of Mozart’s celebrated overture. Throughout the performance, the orchestra brilliantly supported the excellent vocal performances of the principals.

[Below: THe San Francisco Opera Chorus (in top hats, lower right) edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisc Opera.

Also contributing to a superb musical performance was the San Francisco Opera Chorus, under the leadership of Pennsylvania chorus director John Keene. In the opera’s final moments the chorus appeared onstage, all donning top hats like Sarastro’s.

Barrie Kosky’s Production

As I indicated at the beginning of this review, my comments praising the concepts that underlie the Kosky-Andrade production are recorded in my account of its 2013 Los Angeles Opera American premiere.

Recommendation

The Kosky-Andrade production of “The Magic Flute” should be seen by opera-goers who are responsive to alternative visions of familiar works. It’s a spectacular concept.

[Below: a scene extolling the virtues promoted in Sarastro’s realm; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photography, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

If my comments on this performance appear more measured than my review of Los Angeles Opera’s American premiere, they are simply intended to suggest that presenting the opera using a three-dimensional stage with characters interacting directly with each other permits an audience member to see the opera from a very different perspective.

[Below: Tamino (Amitai Pati, bottom center) stands between the Two Amored Men (Thomas Kinch and James McCarthy]; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]