I made it out to the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night for the New York premiere of The Magic Flute in the production directed and co-designed by the South African artist William Kentridge. Artists find Mozart’s opera irresistable. Chagall produced sets for it. David Hockney’s beloved designs were a hit for years at the New York Metropolitian Opera, where Kentridge plans a 2010 version of Shostakovich’s Nose, from the Gogol story.
At times this Flute, which was first staged in Brussels two years ago, had a Kiki Smith meets Edward Gorey feel. Smith for her enigmatic drawings of birds and other creatures. Gorey for the patently artificial black and white sets he designed for the Broadway production of Dracula in the 1970’s. Kentridge floods his darkened, stepped stage with projected animations of his charcoal drawings — liquid, arabesquing lines, starbursts, comical dancing beasts and men. To represent Sarastro’s dark knowledge the air fills with arcane geometries, with cones, coordinates and outwardly radiating orbital paths. During Pamino’s wanderings rustling fern patterns rush across the entire proscenium space and across the performers in it. For the triumphant ending, the lovers united, there’s a burst of white fireworks.
But Kentridge also means for his designs to link us to a moral and political reading of this always enigmatic story. The characters are in 19th century dress, the men in particular in something that looks like Royal Geographic Society explorer gear. It’s all a hint that, as always, questions of colonialism and power relations are on Kentridge’s mind. (To be sure that we get the message, at one point there’s projected film of two white hunters gunning down a rhinoceros.) He means for us to understand that whatever Sarastro’s sometimes benign sentiments, his powers rest on darkness, absolutism and, when the occasion calls for it — or just when it permits — on cruelty.
If only the message came through more clearly and consistently. Lovely as it is, this Flute can leave you feeling as though Kentridge, who’s famous for his sly and gentle animations, reflections on South Africa’s vexed history, was reluctant to impose himself too powerfully on Mozart’s masterpiece. So box cameras are prominent stage devices. We know that Kentridge has always loved primitive cinema techniques and bygone devices like old telephones. But what do the cameras mean here? Are we seeing the 19th century beginnings of the modern surveillance state? Hard to say, since Kentridge doesn’t develop the metaphor much.
I’d be happy to see this Flute again, for its imagination and its charm that never descends into mere sweetness. (And for some spectacular singing, especially in the chief female roles.) But I’m not sure that another viewing would bring me any closer to Mozart’s vision. Or even to Kentridge’s.