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A Look Back at Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival and ‘The Magic Flute’

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When Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival was announced in October of 2015, the company headlined its importation of the Berlin’s Komische Oper (Comic Opera) production of The Magic Flute. That much-publicized staging was the attraction, the big news.

Olga Pudova and Ben Bliss. Photo by Steven Pisano.

Olga Pudova and Ben Bliss. Photo by Steven
Pisano.

I delayed my viewing of it until the end of the festival because the other events were more original. Yet this version of Mozart’s final opera is great fun, and its massive publicity is well-deserved. It is a technological triumph, and grand entertainment, even though some of the festival’s other offerings had more artistic depth.

O17 exceeded expectations with its presentation of four local productions — three of them being world premieres — in the space of twelve days. Elizabeth Cree, We Shall Not Be Moved, War Stories and The Wake World were outstanding compositions that cleverly used Philadelphia artistic landmarks. Some critics complained of poor sightlines in the Cloisters of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or having to stand and move around at the Barnes Foundation, but I was entranced by the atmosphere created in these site-specific presentations.

I’ve been fortunate to cover internationally-respected festivals such as Salzburg, Santa Fe and Glimmerglass. None of them produce as much new work in any one year. I’m further impressed by the fact that Opera Philadelphia chose to ally itself with the Barnes, the Art Museum, and the Wilma Theater, even when they had to turn away paying customers because of space limitations. The Art Museum staircase holds no more than 300 people; the Barnes has hardly any seats. Clearly, Opera Philly placed artistry ahead of box office.

Ashley Milanese, Siena Miller, and Anastasiia Sidorova. Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography.

Ashley Milanese, Siena Miller, and Anastasiia Sidorova. Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography.

Continuing with this successful concept, perhaps a future festival could use Eastern State Penitentiary as the site for a prison-related opera such as Beethoven’s Fidelio, or a new opera on that subject. And maybe a church could house an opera with a religious topic. I welcome such innovation, and I’m glad to put up with some navigational inconvenience. It’s a beneficial trade-off. More than that; it’s a distinguishing hallmark of the project.

My preview report on this festival in October 2015 reflected the concerns of many subscribers. They worried about the diversion of resources from the mainstage operas during the rest of the year. After all, other cities that instituted festivals (Vancouver, Fort Worth, Cincinnati) discontinued other operas and saved money by eliminating year-round staff. I wrote “There’s concern about momentum and continuity. How will Philadelphians get their opera fix during the five-month gap in the fall and winter?”

Now I’m convinced that this company can successfully operate on both tracks. In fact, the O17 Festival served as an introduction for projects during the regular season. Mezzo Daniela Mack made a spectacular debut in the title role of the festival’s Elizabeth Cree, and she’s returning in April to star in a new production of Carmen. Sondra Radvanovsky made her first Philadelphia appearance with a festival recital, and she’s conferring with conductor Corrado Rovaris to select a mainstage opera appearance. Both she and the company feel certain about an ongoing relationship.

I do wonder why the 2017 festival schedule was announced 23 months in advance, yet the company tells me that the 2018 schedule won’t be released until January. The company says that it’s “still working on plans for the second festival while studying what went well in the first.” Hopefully, this article may contribute towards that discussion.

Getting back to The Magic Flute, it was an excellent choice as an attention-getter. Its visual special effects and precise coordination are amazing. Directed by the inventive Barrie Kosky and actress Suzanne Andrade, first seen in Berlin in 2012 and since borrowed by Los Angeles, Minneapolis and other American companies, the production is based on silent films of the 1920s and is a mixture of German Expressionism and goofy humor. The stars are the graphic animations. Subordinated are the serious humanity at the heart of this work, and its romantic love story, its Masonic symbolism and moral allegory.

Ashley Milanese, Siena Miller, and Anastasiia Sidorova. Photo by Steven Pisano.

Ashley Milanese, Siena Miller, and Anastasiia Sidorova. Photo by Steven Pisano.

The singers are hampered because they have to stand, constricted, on small platforms while the audience sees their faces superimposed upon comical drawings. I especially miss a romantic-looking Prince Tamino and Pamina. The production could have adhered to its 1920s premise and given us look-alikes of Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo, but the directors chose otherwise.

Baritone Jared Ott as Papageno seemed the most comfortable. Tenor Ben Bliss appeared to be restricted as Tamino, and soprano Rachel Sterrenberg sounded far from her usual excellence. Peixin Chen was a dignified Sarastro who lacked resonance on his important bottom notes, and Olga Pudova was a pallid Queen of the Night. David Charles Abell led the orchestra and chorus briskly, keeping in mind that his music had to match the animation.

I enjoyed the wacky show, while realizing that this is not the definitive version of Mozart’s opera. An appropriate summation is this quotation from Leopold Stokowski describing his animated film Fantasia in 1940: “Our picture is not presenting the only possible version. It merely offers one way out of many possible ways of visualizing the music.”

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.

The Magic Flute played through September 24, 2017 at Opera Philadelphia, performing at the Academy of Music – Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. Information about Opera Philadelphia’s 2018 festival is available online.

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