BWW Reviews: HGO's MAGIC FLUTE Hits Every Note
I am taken back to the first Opera I saw as a kid and the pomp and circumstance with wearing a tux and walking to the lavish theatre; this was when I fell in love with classical music. Often times we hear opera and other classical art forms are inaccessible to the people, but Houston Grand Opera's English translation of Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE (Die Zauberflöte) proved that opera isn't a stuffy, highbrow art form for the bourgeois. THE MAGIC FLUTE premiered on September 30, 1791 at Emanuel Schikaneder's theatre, the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, and Mozart conducted the orchestra. The MAGIC FLUTE often referenced as a singspiel, is an opus with spoken dialogue which lends itself to the elements of classical musical theatre. The heart of this new work was an excerpt from the oriental genie tales collected by poet Christoph Martin Wieland but transitioned to have Masonic elements from the novel Sethos by Abbé Jean Terrasson.
The Opera begins as Prince Tamino (David Portillo) is being
chased by a serpent. The serpent is about to strike but is killed by Three Ladies (Megan Samarin, Renee Tatum and Alicia Gianni) who are servants to of the Queen of the Night. Once Tamino wakes from the horrific event he is greeted by Papageno (Michael Sumuel) the Queens bird catcher. In his quest for fame, he lies and says that he killed the serpent. In their anger, the Three Ladies are angry and padlock his mouth shut. The ladies give Tamino a picture of Pamina, the Queens daughter and he falls madly in love with her. The Queen (Kathryn Lewek) manipulates the love sick Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina (Nicole Heaston) from the evil clutches of her nemesis Sarastro (Morris Robinson). On his quest, Tamino and his valet Papageno set out to rescue Pamina with a Magic Flute, Magic Bells escorted by Three Spirits (Hannah Haw, Brook Camryn Caballero and Eden Neilson). The evil Monostatos (Aaron Pegram) tries to hurt Pamina but is stopped by Papageno. Tamino is lead to the temple by the three spirits where he is greeted by voices that reveal the truth about Sarastro and the Queen's lies used to bring down her enemy. Tamino uses the Magic Flute to tame the animals in the forest and Papageno used the Magic Bells to hinder being held captive by Monostatos. Once the truth is revealed about the Queen and Monostatos, Sarastro commands Monostatos to be punished and he invites Tamino and Papageno to endure the rituals of the Masonic order of Isis.
Sarastro introduces Tamino and Sarastro to the ideals of the Masonic Order. The first ritual is for the men to stand silent in a dark room. During this test, the Three Ladies enter and try to persuade them back into the clutches of the Queen. Monostatos sees Pamina alone again he tries to assault her, but this time he is interrupted by the Queen. The Queen now gives Pamina a dagger a
nd she instructs Pamina to kill Sarastro or she will disown her. Pamina is face to face with Sarastro and cannot kill him. She tells him everything and he promises not to seek revenge on her mother. Tamino and Papageno are faced yet again with a vow of silence and fails miserably as he talks to an old lady who professes to be his girlfriend. Tamino meets Pamina and she is confused because he will not talk to her. She feels Tamino isn't in love with her anymore. Sarastro applauds the efforts of Tamino and he is advised that when he completes the final task he can no longer see Pamina. Pamina is melancholy and contemplates suicide until the Three Spirts intervene. The Three Spirits bring her to Tamino and they both withstand the final ritual of fire and water. With love and the magic flute in hand, they complete the last test and both are invited into the temple. In the final scene of the opera, Papageno attempts to commit suicide, and the Three Spirits stop him. He is united with Papagena (Pureum Jo) and they fly away together. In one fail attempt, The Queen and Monostatos try to destroy the temple and it is through love, enlightened thinking and the hope for a brighter future they are destroyed.
I like to consider this opera a classical gumbo! THE MAGIC FLUTE has a baroque coloratura, Mozart's new Masonic low bass style, folk songs, and the beautiful classical and romantic aria. There is no denying the wonderful casting of this operatic gem. Making his HGO debut David Portillo's portrayal of Tamino was definitely meraviglioso. Tamino's aria was sung with passion from note to note. Nicole Heaston's lyric soprano voice is full of nuance, passion and beauty bel-canto singing at its best. Pamina's Lament was delivered with disparity and pure vocal perfection. The connection between Heaston and Portillo on stage wasn't forced or contrived. I believed their love from moment to moment. Vocally these two artists blended very well and the passion was audible in their duets. This on stage couple is molto bello! Morris Robinson's bass vocal was a river of comfort filled with a robust power that commanded the stage. Every so often in our time there is an influential voice and I must say that Robinson will go down in the books with bass greats such as; Samuel Ramey, Nazzereno de Angelis and Paul Robeson.
The Queen of the Night played by Kathryn Lewek was the highlight of the evening. Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen also known as The Queen of the Night Aria was executed with vocal perfection. Lewek's coloratura was seamless and approached with vocal ease. Growing up I repeatedly listened to Dame Joan Sutherland sing this masterpiece, and now I can say I have a new favorite coloratura soprano. Michael Sumuel's vocal prowess was very meticulous and added another colorful layer to this piece. His comedic timing was wonderful. The Papageno, Papagena duet with Pureum Jo was one of the highlights of the night for me as well as the audience in their reactions. The HGO chorus was another power player in this opera spectacle. I love to listen to a chorus that is filled with skilled and passionate vocalists. Often we critique the main characters of an opera and forget about the other entities that bring these productions to fruition. I want to applaud every member of the chorus for their vocal commitment and artistic integrity used in their scenes.
Walking out of the doors of the opera I am a proud Houstonian, but also a proud member of the Houston arts community. In celebration of Black History Month, I am again thankful for the strides made by black artists of the past, present and future. Classical artists such as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman have changed the face of what an opera lead should look and sound like. I want to thank HGO for thinking outside of the classical box. There have been many questionable casting choices by HGO in the past, and I have to say that with this production, the powers that be made a brilliant decision in casting. This was color blind casting at its best! I am an Opera purist and Jeremy Sams English translation brilliantly undergirds the farcical libretto originally written by Emanuel Schikaneder encompassed by the melodious score composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I am a linguist and have a love for language and the German version will forever be dear to me but I was moved to think differently about this translation of the opera.
As I always say with the good there is some bad in my opinion. The costume design was brilliantly executed by Tony Award winning Lighting and Costume designer Bob Crowley, but there were a few missed stitches. The color pallet visually lacked appeal. The off-white and beige colors washed out the actors against the white brick wall of the set design. This was a very simple design aesthetic that didn't match the robust composition of the opera. I did enjoy the bird motif used in the dresses and the nest headpiece in the wig design, but this wasn't enough to get two thumbs up. The Queen of the Night mimicked the Bride of Frankenstein and the majesty of the temple scenes were downplayed in the design of the robes. I wanted to see more color. Sometime in opera the attention in the rehearsal process is mainly focused on the music, and the acting takes a back seat in the process. Directorially I wanted to see the actors make a choice in the style of humor, are we going to go for the intellectual dry humor or in your face cheeky humor? Playing vs. being was a through line through the opera. Are you mad or are you playing mad? Are you old or are you playing old? Ambivalence in these moments can kill a scene. At the end of the day, this is all subjective but just my two-cents so spend them how you will. This production by far has been the highlight of my year in the theatre.
Across the country, many opera houses are changing up the lineup and bringing classical musical theatre, American operas and creating contemporary adaptations of the classics. Many say that ballet and opera aren't accessible to the people, and I have to say this is a misguided opinion. I highly encourage you to head over to The Wortham and catch one of HGO's productions, you will shout bravissimo at the curtain call! Thanks for reading!
The plays the thing! See you at the theatre!