I went to see William Kentridge’s production of the Magic Flute at BAM last night, and boy was it disappointing. It’s not that I have anything against Kentridge: I think he’s a great artist, and I reckon his next production, of Shostakovich’s Nose, might be excellent. (He could be really good designing sets for Lulu, say, or The Turn of the Screw.) But the Flute? Let’s just say that a black-and-white Magic Flute is as wrong in practice as it sounds in theory.
I don’t seem to have a lot of luck with opera at BAM. The cast last night was woefully underpowered, the pace that the conductor set was positively glacial, and there wasn’t a hint of joy or happiness all night. It takes a lot to screw up the Flute, but this team managed it — they even put Papageno in a beige suit, ferchrissakes! When Monostatos recoils from Papageno, thinking him the devil, it makes no sense at all.
And although Kentridge’s white-on-black drawings are beautiful, I still can’t forgive him for including footage of hunters killing a rhino in the middle of the opera for no obvious reason. The Flute is meant to be upbeat, but everything about this production made it depressing.
If you want a hugely enjoyable three hours, go see Grindhouse instead. It’s had a slightly disappointing run at the box office so far, probably because The Kids These Days don’t want to see movies about movies. But it’s more than worth it for the car chase alone, which is truly one of the greatest of all time. The Magic Flute was Grindhouse-style popular entertainment of its day. Julie Taymor understands that; William Kentridge, I’m afraid, with his ominous symbolism, doesn’t.