Silent screen magic in 'Flute' and a vampire chases 'Sleeping Beauty'

Pamina (Janai Brugger) bonds with Papageno (Rodion Pogossov) over their shared desire to find a true love. Photo: Robert Millard

Humor, needed now more than ever, comes to our downtown stages in two shows brimming with imagination: a "Magic Flute" that breaks the antique Mozartian mold and Matthew Bourne's hip "Sleeping Beauty" powered by a testosteronic high. And to think they both used to be sex-less little fairy tales, set to extraordinary music.

Think of Mozart in his feverishly sick last months, penning his 1791 score of Die Zauberflöte, that sweetly child-like coming-of-age fable with Singspiel characters straight from a classic story book. And then think the 1920s, silent film, the earliest Mickey Mouse animations, Louise Brooks, Buster Keaton, Nosferatu and just how big a leap this LA Opera premiere made from one to the other.

Truth is, I never saw anything quite like it. For sheer ingenuity and stage/film savvy this one goes beyond mere stylized cleverness.

And it came to LA replacing the well-loved Peter Hall/Maurice Sendak fantasia because company mavens were onto something: a chance to lean forward and give this entertainment/movie capital a dazzlingly innovative, re-thought, all-of-a-piece "Magic Flute" never before seen outside of Berlin's Komische Oper, one devised by Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt with co-director Barrie Kosky of the retro-garde 1927, a London theater company.

GlobalLAO-Gallery-Press-Flute2013-MgF6038.jpgSo hold on to your hats. This staging is a sophisticate's delight. Its constantly sly wit and overall tech management come stream-lined with ever-changing yet logical stagecraft and imagery. Instead of the spiel or dialogue, it uses old-timey screen titles between scenes (1927, get it?) just like in silent films. Accompanying them are Mozart's well-known C-minor and F-minor keyboard fantasies played on an amplified forte piano, the sound a bit tinny like in those old movie houses. Esther Bialas's costumes are body-hugging flapper coats and cloches. The cast comes in white face (an irony is that the romantic leads are both black.)

Everyone appears on a separate, little platform attached high up to a big board -- remember "Laugh-In"? Well, it's sort of like that but the door flaps that open with each set of occupants are full-body size instead of just for heads. And whiz-bang animation supplies the background, complete with a cat cameo and assorted other animals.

It works. And it's impossible not to gasp at how thought-through a piece it is. If, that is, you can do without the heart-melting moments embedded in arias like ""Ach, ich fuhl's" -- which Pamina sings when Tamino has seemingly shut her out (because he's really under a challenge to be silent or to lose her altogether.)

But this is where we want to suspend disbelief and join the fairy tale, where we need to feel what the characters feel, not keep emotional distance from them. The music would pull us into her pool of pain, yet the conceptual catch-all leaves us out because there's no connecting vibration between the two lovers onstage. So I came home and -- for relief -- watched several excerpts of this scene on YouTube...

GlobalLAO-Gallery-Press-Flute2013-MgF3236.jpgStill, the cast onstage could not be faulted. Rodion Pogossov, as the guileless fool Papageno and here a Buster Keaton type, had the best shot at exercising human physicality; in his earthy gold suit and flattened, slouchy hat to match, hands often in pockets, he ambled about, his voice a most pleasing, warm baritone.

The others -- Lawrence Brownlee (Tamino), Janai Brugger (Pamina), Erika Miklosa (Queen of the Night), Rodell Rosel (Monostatos), Amanda Woodbury (Papagena) and Evan Boyer, (a Sarastro who omitted his lowest notes) -- were more locked into their stations, thus sounding somewhat distant but terrific anyway Conductor James Conlon kept things moving along briskly. Still, he gave the laments their lyrical due and led a thrillingly unified chorus.

But no such musical treats lay across the plaza at the Ahmanson. Typically these days for touring dance companies, this Tchaikovsky ballet score was canned, over-amplified and scratchy.

Aside from that deficit, though, do you really think Matthew Bourne would stage "The Sleeping Beauty" and let its heroine be the precious, dainty, delicate innocent girl set upon by a wicked fairy who puts her in a 100-year doze?

SleepingBeauty_Photo 13-M.jpgNot a chance. His idea of Princess Aurora is a cantankerous scamp. She flings herself into any and all waiting arms and races gracelessly like a wound-up tomboy, barefoot, while all the others dancers wear ballet slippers.

And who would be her formidable nemesis, as well as a main character in this production? Not the bent-over, grizzled crone called Carabosse but the menacing male version of her, and later as the villain's son, Caradoc, erect, imperious and vampire-ish. No one will mistake the evil he does or his command of events or the fearsomeness of his presence. Just as Bourne has typically done before, notably in his "Swan Lake," he brings real threat of harm through a male character -- that powerful high chest, neck held as though by steel girders, arms and shoulders sweeping all before him to subservience. Choice.

As Aurora's savior there's Leo the Gamekeeper (elsewhere known as Prince Charming), and he's remindful of any easy-to-like romantic lead in a musical comedy.

SleepingBeauty_Photo 5-M.jpgAll three are cast to strength: most compellingly Adam Maskell in the dual villain role Carabosse/Caradoc; Hannah Vassallo as Aurora and Dominic North as the sweet suitor Leo. The group dances abound in big, juicy movements with expanded chests and extended arms. The most gratifying among them, and the only one with real choreographic artistry and clever design, was the garden party.

On a far smaller scale there was the debut performance of Barak Ballet, a local chamber company founded by Melissa Barak, late of New York City Ballet and a native daughter here. She's artistically savvy, quite ambitious and her opening event at the Broad Stage featured one dazzling work -- a real find -- by New York choreographer Pascal Rioult: "Wien," set to Ravel's "La Valse."

Don't even ask how or why this piece escaped us in the past. New Yorkers saw it in 1995 and it has been performed elsewhere, but no other company has brought it here. Thank you, Ms. Barak.

"Wien" is the name Ravel originally gave to this popular concert piece. And here the French dance-maker illustrated a design of social disintegration that he saw in it.

To the score's swirling, plangent waves of unrest we saw a gaggle of people in street clothes internally pulled and yanked as though caught in a vortex, drawn in one direction or another, sometimes with hunched shoulders, necks bent down, jaws jutting -- remindful of an Expressionist painting. And in the way the group moved around the stage it seemed like birds in changing formations, impelled by some unseen force.

The performance itself was matchless. The credit goes to Barak for recruiting this small contingent of virtuosic dancers, so sensitive to the work's core voices.

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