BWW Reviews: WNO's THE MAGIC FLUTE is a Magical Experience, Musically and Visually
THE MAGIC FLUTE (Die Zauberflote), Mozart's last great work, is sometimes viewed as the precursor to musical theater. Mozart's friend, actor-producer Emanuel Schikaneder, wrote the original libretto in the German vernacular (as opposed to the more upper crust Italian) as a "singspiel," a play with music. In fact, THE MAGIC FLUTE has significantly more spoken dialogue than The Phantom of the Opera and certainly far more than Les Miserables.
The new Washington National Opera production at the Kennedy Center Opera House, co-produced with the San Francisco Opera Association, Opera Omaha, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Opera Carolina, is indeed magical -- a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Artist Jun Kaneko designed the costumes and the sets as if they were Japanese-themed mobile art. The backgrounds consist of moving projections of multi-colored geometric shapes and lines. On occasion, the projections distracted from the music, especially during the overture, because some of the color juxtapositions seemed to clash. Aside from that minor quibble, the visuals were breathtaking, and Mr. Kaneko's animals adorable - even the supposedly fierce two-headed dragon looked more like a model for a cuddly stuffed toy.
The WNO's current production is performed completely in English, but still includes surtitles, which provide welcome help in understanding the convoluted plot and appreciating the humor in the new libretto, updated by WNO dramaturg Kelley Rourke. The story involves Sarastro , his nemesis (the Queen of the Night), confusion in picking out the good guys from the bad guys, comedy, magical trials for the hero (Tamino) to prove himself worthy of the heroine (Pamina), and a happy ending. Mozart turned the usual operatic cliches upside down; the bass sings the role of the good guy trying to bring light to everyone while evil queen sings her music of the night in a bright coloratura.
The main plot and the comic subplot involving birdcatcher Papageno make THE MAGIC FLUTE suitable as a children's introduction to opera, as do the familiar melodies and the series of puns ably concocted by Ms. Rourke, most of which are "fowl." (Sorry -- it's impossible to resist joining the bird-brained hilarity, especially after Papageno mentions tweeting and a hashtag springs up on the surtitles.) At one point, Papageno plays his magical bells, which resemble a banjo, and launches into a Chuck Berry dance. Not all the humor belongs to Papageno, however. There are topical jokes about Sarastro's civilization being a fine one, if the arts receive support there, to which the audience responded more heartily than to the more subtle claim by the Queen of the Night that, when Sarastro's minions carried her daughter, Pamina, off to his temple,"resistance was futile."
Fortunately, the cast I saw (the main roles rotate) is well up to the difficult task of singing in the musical range into which Mozart has placed their characters. Soprano Kathryn Lewek, substituting for Anna Siminska, who was ill, fluidly slipped from one impossibly high note to another, reaching an F above high C, in "Der Hölle Rache" ("Hell's Vengeance"), the Queen of the Night's famous second act aria, during which she tries to manipulate her daughter to kill Sarastro. Bass Soloman Howard, a native Washingtonian, in his third season of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program, shone with his mastery of notes so low that one wonders how a human being can sing in that register. I'd lay odds that, twenty years from now, people who attended this production will be boasting, "I saw Soloman Howard in THE MAGIC FLUTE when he was just starting out." Eri Nakamura, as Pamina, making her United States debut, is a tiny woman whose lovely soprano voice exhibits real power - so much for the old theory that only large people can sing. She also demonstrated excellent acting ability. David Pershall (Papageno) and Shantelle Przybylo (Papagena), too, revealed musical skill and comic acting talent.
I do have a few minor criticisms, none of which are enough to to have diminished my appreciation of an overall brilliant production. Specifically, Paul Appleby (Tamino) sounded as if he was pushing during vocal runs. John Easterlin's (Monostatos's) mellifluous voice has attributes that, in my opinion, are more suited to Broadway than to opera. Solomon Howard delivers Sarastro's spoken lines in ways with which I disagree, through an uninflected monotone, in sharp contrast to his passionate vocal interpretation.
My colleague, Jeffrey Walker, reviewed the production on its opening night, with different singers in the roles of Tamino, Pamina, Papageno, and Papagena. His review is available at /bwwclassical/article/BWW-Reviews-WNOs-Eye-Popping-MAGIC-FLUTE-Casts-a-Musical-Spell-20140504-page2#.U2mJDPldWT8 . We both recommend the production, regardless of which performers appear.
Audience members should be certain to walk through the Hall of Nations,on the left of the Opera House as a visitor enters the Kennedy Center, where Mr. Kaneko's ceramic sculptures are on display. Enchanted visitors posed for photographs next to the whimsical tanuki lined up in two smiling rows. I mistook them for pigs, but tanuki are raccoon dogs that, in Japan, have developed the reputation for being mischievous creatures that bring good luck.
THE MAGIC FLUTE is appearing at the Kennedy Center Opera House through May 18th. Tickets range from $25.00 to $305.00 and are available at the box office, by telephone at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or online at http://www.kennedy-center.org/tickets/home.html .
Conductor: Philippe Auguin
Director: Harry Silverstein
Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant
The Queen of the Night: Kathryn Lewek (5/3, 8, 11, 18), Anna Siminska (5/5, 7, 10, 15, 17)
Pamina: Eri Nakamura (5/5, 7, 10, 17), Maureen McKay (5/3, 8, 11, 15, 18)
Tamino: Joseph Kaiser (5/3, 8, 11, 15, 18), Paul Appleby (5/5, 7, 10, 17)
Papageno: Joshua Hopkins (5/3, 8, 11, 15, 18), David Pershall (5/5, 7, 10, 17)
Sarastro: Soloman Howard (5/3, 5, 7, 10), Jordan Bisch (5/8, 11, 15, 17, 18)
Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Performance, Fri., May 16 at 7:30 p.m.:
Shantelle Przybylo as Pamina; Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night; Patrick O'Halloran as Tamino; Norman Garrett as Papageno; Soloman Howard as Sarastro; John Easterlin as Monostatos; Ashley Emerson as Papagena.
Photo Credit: Scott Suchman
Photo Credit (Tanuki Sculptures): Audrey Liebross