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A CurtainUp Berkshire ReviewDie Zauberflöte(The Magic Flute)
Background Information and Plot Synopsis
With musical theater becoming increasingly operatic, it's small wonder that more and more musical theater fans are eager to venture into the opera world. Opera newbies couldn't cut their teeth on anything better than Mozart's The Magic Flute. Its broad comedy and combination of spoken dialogue and singing puts into the genre of singspiel rather than grand opera. Yet it is grand in every other sense of the word -- an unbeatable musical experience, from its fairy-tale story with giant serpents to its gorgeous score of lyrical arias, duets, trios and choral singing .
As with other theatrical classics operas often undergo drastic revisions and The Magic Flute is no exception. It's been compressed into an hour for the pre-school set. Last year a German director named Herbert Wernicke conceived a one-man version which played briefly at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall (see our opera critic David Lipfert's review). Earlier this season at the Santa Fe Opera the English director Jonathan Miller decided to strip The Magic Flute of its origins as a work written for a vaudeville theater by setting it in a very proper hotel shortly after World War I. The fantastical serpent who chases Tamino during the opening scene disappeared into a nightmare unseen by the audience. Equally invisible were Tamino's later trials . I'll spare you further details of what one opera friend described as "The Magic Flute minus the magic" but will fast forward to the filled with magic production by the Berkshire Opera Company.
While the company's bow towards musical theater might cause some tongue clicking among purists, most of the choices made for this production work well for this opera and this human-scaled theater. I think if Mozart were alive he would approve (in fact, I'm reasonably certain that he would, like Leonard Bernstein have dipped his toes into the world of musical theater).
The company's move to opera in its original language marks its increasing maturity. The super titles by stage director Matthew Lata, while somewhat over-abridged by the rather small overhead screen, are on a par with foreign language film titles and provide enough text to keep track of the complications that propel the plot. (You'll also find an excellent summary in the program, as well as our own synopsis at the end of this review). No doubt the physical problems, which at the opening performance I attended included a brief blackout at the start of the second act, will resolve themselves in subsequent performances.
Thanks to a rental arrangement with the Virginia Opera Company the sets are first-rate, complete with a handsome turquoise proscenium arch and several painted scrims. The effectiveness of the latter is apparent immediately, when an imaginary Pamina flashes into view during Tamino's "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schoen" aria. The costumes (also rented) add to the visual pleasures, as does Eric Cornwell's mood-appropriate lighting.
Fortunately, this production is a full-featured feast and the strong elements are matched by a cast in which the performer have the vocal skills to do credit to Mozart's varied score. Soprano Sari Gruber who previously charmed Berkshire Opera audiences in The Marriage of Figaro (see link) once more proves herself to be a Mozart singer and character interpreter par excellence. As her mother and the villainess without which no fairy tale is worthy of the name, Lorraine Ernest navigates her coloratura trills with virtuoso ease. While tenor Matthew Chellis is an appealingly romantic Tamino and bass Randall Jakobsch brings the right aura of authority to the role of the high priest Sarastro, the standout in the leading men department is baritone Christopheren Nomura. Besides impeccable singing, he brings great comic flair to the whimsically befeathered Papageno.
Much of the fun stuff adding to the blend of opera/musical theater experience centers on Papageno's antics. For example, during Act II, in the increasingly popular tradition of crumbling the fourth wall said to stand between audience and actors, this Papageno darts down the aisles and at the end he and his Papagena (Adele Paxton) share the spotlight with a cute instant family of Papagenas. (This is a fairy tale . . . so why not?).
Also great fun are the three boys floating onto the stage in a balloon and in this case ladies (Jayne West, D'Anna Fortunato Elizabeth Turnbull); also the orchestra, taking advantage of the pit being within hand reach of the actors, getting into the act by passing an occasional prop to the performers and at one point participating with a one-word group solo of " Zurück". To further enhance the intimacy of the production the excellent Fuma Sacra Chamber Chorus at one point shows up in the narrow balcony spaces at either side of the theater which works extremely well from an acoustical standpoint.
With all the fun elements and the Lion King (link) reminiscent animal touches, should you bring kids to this production? Because the titles require a certain reading sophistication and because the performance, despite judicious trimming, runs three hours, I'd say yes, if the kid you're bringing is at least ten and somewhat musically sophisticated. Otherwise, check out the Ingmar Bergman video in the bookstore link below.
Previously Reviewed Operas From this Company
Background and Plot Synopsis
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