Dallas — Mozart’s magical Masonic-ish masterpiece, The Magic Flute, has been staged in myriad ways, from the superlative to the shameful, but the work itself often overcomes any misgivings. When the theatrical stars align, such as with the current production at The Dallas Opera, the genius of Mozart’s final opera stands fully revealed.
This performance, heard on opening night, is terrific in almost all respects. The cast is generally excellent and, as a bonus, there are even some real standouts. Maestro Emmanuel Villaume’s extensive research into the score presents a refreshing new take on the music that will delight those familiar with the music, but even first-timers will be surprised by the freshness he brings to whatever they may have expected.
Director Kyle Lang keeps the show moving without extraneous busyness or commentary. The orchestra and chorus are in top form and you will soon forget that it is being performed in the original German by the slightly modernized supertitles. The hand-painted sets, colorful costumes and a fantastical group of forest animals, are museum-worthy.
This production, designed by the legendary Sir Peter Hall, debuted in Los Angeles in 1993 to mixed reviews. Both excitement and dread were present even before it opened because Hall invited British Gerald Anthony Scarfe, a creative cartoonist and illustrator, to design the production. Cartoonist? “Oh my,” tutted the intelligentsia over their teacups and some critics over their typewriters. Even news of a production with David Hockney’s Southern California sun-drenched idealized realism didn’t cause such anticipatory angst.
But Hall’s inspired concept has proven to be impervious to the original critical barbs and even to some current critiques because it always delights, no matter how often you may have seen it.
It was thought that it would become too dated but, as it turns out, comics are not only still a part of pop culture, you could argue they’re more popular than ever, what with graphic novels and comic-inspired blockbuster films. As long as comics continue to evolve, this Flute may be one of those productions that will consistently be revived well into the foreseeable future.
Portraying the three main leads are singers of the appropriate age and physicality, in addition to possessing the chops to master Mozart’s famously difficult vocal writing.
Paolo Fanale gives Prince Tamino a youthful version of the dignity and sense of noblesse oblige that is usually drummed into such progeny. Vocally, he is a genuine lyric tenor, with a properly placed voice displaying evenness and control throughout the registers. We even heard some lovely pianissimo notes floated over the texture. (Fortunately, the trend of casting Italianate Parmigana Tenori in inappropriate roles has long passed.)
Tamino’s destined love interest, Pamina, also the daughter of royalty, is played by Andrea Carroll. She displays some of the same quality that Fanale imbrues into his version of Tamino but tinged with some youthful idealism about love and what it entails. She is still quite young but the promise in her voice is boundless. She is very wise to sing roles like this at the present, but she is surely headed for success in Puccini-land and maybe even beyond.
As it always seems to be, boyhood chums make for charming opposites and such is the case here with Sean Michael Plumb’s guileless cutup of a Papageno, Tamino’s sidekick. His career as a bird catcher has somehow affected a change in his DNA in such a way that he has become half bird, illustrated by a costume made of feathers and sprouting yellow plumage.
Vocally, Plumb has a secure lyric baritone voice with amazing flexibility which allows him to play Papageno in the manner of a character actor (for which it was originally conceived) yet hold his own when serious singing is required.
As Papageno’s custom-designed love interest, Papagena, Abigail Rethwisch is a bundle of energy. She has a light lyric voice that fairly bubbles out of her. When the two of them are finally joined, after some growing required of Papageno, the infatuated duo cavort around like puppies.
The Queen of the Night’s big aria has to be one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music extant. In this production, Jeni Houser portrays this stratospheric character. Houser’s voice is too small for the role, although that tends to be the type of singer frequently cast. Thus, especially in a more robust cast, she sounds distant. But to give her credit due, singing her first aria suspended from the top and in the rear of the stage would be a challenge for any singer. Also, she meets Mozart’s demands. She effortlessly ascends to the top of the required range, although to do so she pops the very top notes out of line and produces them wide open. They sound like a different voice, and intonation suffers slightly.
As Sarastro, the ruler of the Temple, bass Morris Robinson displays both a commanding presence and a remarkably deep bass voice that descends sonorously to the Stygian depths of what is humanly possible. In the other deep-voiced role in this mostly treble cast, David Pittsinger does an outstanding job as the Sprecher in what is one of the most ungrateful but musically demanding roles in the opera canon. Mozart doesn’t give him even a scrap of arioso, just a relatively long and critical plot-advancing scene that is made up of recitativo accompagnato (meaning accompanied by the full orchestra instead of a continuo). Tamino also did a fine job in this musically challenging scene, but the key to its success here is Villaume’s masterful conducting.
This scene is a famously dreaded spot for any conductor and is featured prominently in many conducting professional seminars. Villaume does a better job with these kinds of passages that any other conductor of my knowledge. He uses the very brief connecting passages, sometimes just a few notes, of orchestral writing to add meaning to the dialogue or to smoothly transition to the next thought. It is virtuoso conducting.
As the base and evil servant to Sarastro, Monostatos, Brian Frutiger does a fine job in spite of a costume misfire. Resembling an inflated green Teletubby, the over-padded costume limits his motion. However, not only does he make the most of it, he frequently uses it for comic effect.
Monostatos was a problematic role right from its creation. In the score, he is described as a Moor, and was created to be a comic relief character based on 18th century stereotypes. Hall’s production deftly sidesteps the whole issue by making him just another flavor of the eccentrically designed characters that inhabit the entire score. Alberich of the Nibelungens in Wagner’s Ring came to my mind.
Floating above the fray in a boat that looks like a flying Pterodactyl, the trio of three boys is charmingly dressed in pure white as little Mozarts with Woody Allen glasses. They deliver their wise advice to Tamino and Papagano with voices that are equally undersized. This is usually the case; however, using young girls instead of Mozart’s requested boys would be inappropriate and against the wishes of the composer.
Another lasting impression is created by Diana Newman, Samantha Hankey and Hannah Ludwig who make a delightful trio as the Three Ladies of the Queen. Their voices blend together perfectly, but each is distinct enough to be picked out of the ensemble. Their costumes are similar but different — like a girl group — with complementary fabrics and color scheme, but different designs. In a most humorous manner, these three make that difference a part of the characters they create.
The costumes for the animals that appear in response to the dulcet tones of Tamino’s Magic Flute would be nearly impossible to describe. They must be seen — in fact, they may be worth the ticket price all by themselves.
For a multitude of reasons, TDO’s The Magic Flute is a fantastic opening to the season.