Monday, April 09, 2007

Greenjeans Review: Kentridge's "The Magic Flute" at BAM


Tonight Jae and I attended the U.S. premiere of William Kentridge's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (produced by the Royal Opera House of Belgium), it was our most anticipated cultural event of the year (so far), and we were not disappointed.

William Kentridge is a South African artist whose work deals with humanism, race, corruption, redemption, and beauty. Though he started in theater, he is best known for the stop-action animated films that he makes by drawing images, erasing them, then re-drawing. These silent, semi-narrative films are set to classical music, and watching them is mesmerizing. They are allegories about lovers, politicians, workers, and generals told by an intelligent poet. Elusive and never obvious, he understands the power of ambiguity and interpretation, perhaps because he grew up during Apartheid with his father a lawyer for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Kentridge brings all of this to the production. As director and set designer he created a performance that is part opera and part laser light show, where instead of cheesy hokum the lights recreate his mysterious animated drawings.

During the opening medley, a graceful montage of simple lines, curves, planets, and rays of light dance grandly in white across the scrim, which is both the canvas for the light drawings and is itself printed with a drawing of a room with a ladder and piles of stones. As the scrim rises, we see the set and costumes suggesting a 19th century colonialist conceit. The three Ladies-in-waiting wear voluminous Edwardian bustles and corsets with the swirls and lines of the animations embroidered onto their skirts. They are playing with an old-fashioned box camera balanced on a rickety wooden tripod (perhaps a take on the megaphone form that often appears in his work). Tomino enters safari-ready in khakis and pith helmet. Later, we meet Sarastro and his gentleman-scholar attendants wearing ascots, vests, and tails. He writes on an old-fashioned black board easel using a wooden straight-edges and compass. Edging the entire stage perimeter are charcoal drawings on gray evoking palm trees, rattan patterns, and tall grass.


Projected from multiple laser boxes around the theater, digital renderings of Kentridge's animated drawings (like those in the opening) appear throughout the production creating a wonderful sense of movement on stage. Black chalkboards come to life as geometric proofs play out to the music, and still backdrops erupt into churning water, leaping flames, or sprays of starlight. At one point, a square film projection at the back of the stage shows the silhouette of the artist taming animated black birds. Another shows an animated drawing of a rhinoceros, and later the artist uses historical footage of safari hunters shooting a real rhino, playing with the line between imagined and real.

Kentridge also plays with our perceptions of recorded film and live performance. In the scene where Pamina tries to escape the advances of Monostatos, we watch the performers' stylized movements in silhouette, and it looks like a campy old silent film where the villain pursues the maiden, complete with tinny piano accompaniment. The next time we see silhouette, it's a projected film made using torn-paper figures.

The iconography in the animated drawings is clearly inspired by Enlightenment-era scientific diagrams of optics and the solar system, as well as Masonic themes. In Act II's scenes in the Temple of Sarastro, animated lines form into triangles, and then pyramids, and then an eye appears, blinking at top of the pyramid as the performers sing of Isis and Osiris. The effect is aesthetically pleasing if not otherwise illuminating.

Accompanied by live orchestra, the international cast gave a mostly satisfying performance last night, especially soprano Sophie Karthauser (Pamina). Bass Kaiser N'Kosi (Sarastro) and baritone Stephan Loges (Papageno) were also particularly good, as were the Three Ladies (Salome Haller, Isabelle Everarts De Velp, and Angelique Noldus).

Taking the whole opera, not just the stage, as his canvas, Kentridge's animations are as alive as the performers. Instead of just actors in front of a static backdrop, he creates a relationship between the performers and the animations as they interact with the drawings: the Three Boys "draw" on the black chalkboard and later "erase" it; the Queen of the Night traces a giant circle in the air with her arm as a planet follows its orbit around the entire proscenium. When these movements occur in sync it's like hearing a soprano hit a high note in perfect pitch (though there were a few foibles with both tonight).

Smaller at least by half, the BAM Opera House is much more intimate than the Metropolitan (where we saw The First Emperor earlier this year), and from what we could tell there was nary a bad seat in the house. (We had good orchestra seats, thanks to my calling the day tickets went on sale. One could say we're Kentridge fans. Certainly I've been an enthusiast since I first saw his drawings and prints at Robert Brown Gallery in Washington, D.C. ten years ago.)

If you've seen and appreciated Kentridge's work, and can handle opera, you'll get a lot out of this performance. Unfortunately if you don't already have tickets, you might be out of luck this time around -- it's at BAM for only three more nights (April 11, 13, & 14 at 7:30pm). Call their box office at 718-636-4100 to find out!


For more on Kentridge, check out:


Footage of the opera performed in Naples.

Clips of animated drawings.

Kentridge prints from his publisher, David Krut.

Wiki on Kentridge.

Top 3 photos by Stephanie Berger.
Image of Kentridge in his studio sourced here,
Image of Queen of the Night sourced here.

1 comment:

hr_g said...

I think it's great, wish I could see...but my real question is how did they post the Naples performance on YouTube without the watermark? That's unheard of!!!!