One of the more distinctive and inventive operatic concoctions of local origin was delightfully unveiled at UCSB’s Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall last weekend, as The Magic Flute arrived on stage, replete with dancers and puppets in tow. In this abridged version of Mozart’s beloved 1791 comic/fantasy opera, a pared-down orchestra and singers took up position stage right while dancers and puppeteers choreographed surrogate characters, keeping a kinetic presence stage left.
Ironically or not, COVID-time isolation and uncertainties became the unexpected inspiration for this performance, the brainchild of renowned mezzo-soprano and UCSB Voice Program and Opera Theatre professor Isabel Bayrakdarian. She enlisted UCSB Theater and Dance lecturer Christina McCarthy, as her creative partner. McCarthy is an artist whose toolkit includes dance, puppetry, and other artistic disciplines. Bayrakdarian’s fresh vision of Mozart’s opera, which she has sung many times on world stages, was designed to adapt to life beyond conventional staging.
At Friday’s premiere, the fruits of the pact came fully and successfully to life. Onstage, the Three Spirits (April Amante, Soohyun Ryu, and Marta Hovhannisyan) served as melodious narrative guides for the twisting fates of Papageno (the vibrant Valdis Jansons), the Queen of the Night (Olivia Barker), Pamina (the notably fine Ariana Horner) and Tamino (Chris Hunter). Dancers of note included the empathic and limber Kwan Kuang as Papageno and UCSB alumnus Gianna Burright as the Queen of the Night. And, in a ripe comic moment towards the end, a passel of baby dolls added to the ample cast in motion and song.
In one eerie present-tense reference, we hear of the magic flute existing “for protection against war and insurrection.” Would that the world had access to such a flute now.
Pandemic influences aside, this is an idea whose time has come and should be extended. Bayrakdarian plans to expand the project’s reach via New York City Opera. The blending of disciplines makes for an accessible rendition of an already easy-to-love operatic treat. A new kind of Mozartean magic came to pass with this production at Lotte Lehmann.