Jun Kaneko designed the sets and the costumes for Opera Carolinas new production of Mozarts The Magic Flute, but the Japanese native is much better known as a sculptor and painter whose works grace art galleries all over the world.
Its no wonder, then, that the show which opened Saturday to a sold-out Belk Theater crowd begins with a video-projected feast for the eyes: shimmery blue lines; followed by a sequence of interconnecting, zagging, crawling lines that play like a giant, colorful Etch-a-Sketch; followed by a montage of pop-art.
Seven minutes later, youre properly enchanted. And that 32-foot, two-headed serpent hasnt even begun to hassle our hero, Tamino, yet.
Mozarts music and Emanuel Schikaneders narrative remain intact in the Charlotte companys collaboration with Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and San Francisco Opera, where it debuted last summer.
The tale of the earnest young prince who is given a magic flute and goes looking for love and enlightenment still features his goofy bird-catching sidekick Papageno, his fair princess-to-be (hopefully) Pamina, and the mysterious Queen of the Night. Tamino must still undergo trials of wisdom to prove himself a worthy husband. Papageno must still find his way to his Papagena.
But as refreshed by Kaneko (also the man behind last winters Madama Butterfly reboot for Opera Carolina), the look and feel of this particular Magic Flute seems to have borrowed inspiration from a dozen Tim Burton movies, as well as from that drawing app your toddler uses on the iPad.
Every morsel of imagery delights, or stimulates, or seems to give a pop-cultural wink.
Theres something decidedly Spider-Man-like about Papagenos (Kyle Pfortmiller) bodysuit. If you dont look at sleazy Monostatos (Julius Ahn) and think Gene Simmons in Kiss makeup, you werent a child of the 70s (or 80s, or 90s). And do we detect a little Bride of Frankenstein thing going on there with the Queen (Maria Aleida)?
You might be reminded of different things than I was, but thats just a testament to how imaginative and evocative Kanekos work is.
The fact that Magic Flute is 100 percent in English makes this an ideal introduction to opera for all ages, and supertitles help during musical passages (though they did seem to drop out in two or three instances Saturday). However, its still nearly three hours long with intermission, so the experience will test younger childrens patience. The staging and costumes may be visually exciting, but the pacing is not exactly zippy.
Cast comes through
As for the arias and other vocal arrangements, tenor Shawn Mathey (as Tamino), Korean soprano Yunah Lee (as Pamina), and bass-baritone Tom McNichols (as Sarastro, leader of the temple thats holding Pamina) all sound strong and confident (though McNichols can be a bit more difficult to understand than the others). Meanwhile, Cuban-American Maria Aleida astonishes as the Queen as any soprano playing the Queen should; her first and last arias, with their runs and leaps, would leave Mariah Carey stupefied.
The real star, of course, is Papageno. Its a showy character, the adventures comic relief, and Pfortmiller is perfect bright, quick, flexible, funny. Anyone who gets to slip in a joke about The Clapper in a 222-year-old opera while most of the rest of the cast is always so serious will be an instant fan favorite.
Still, one person got a larger ovation during the curtain call Saturday. Thatd be Kaneko. Thanks to him, Opera Carolinas latest is a true work of art.