At its core, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a buddy/coming of age story. Boy meets friend, then falls in love with a girl; he then loses the girl and has to make a journey with his newfound buddy to get her back. Of course, only in Mozart's world does the boy (unsuccessfully) fight a dragon before passing out and being saved by a trio of women, and the buddy is...well, he says he's a bird-catcher, but the line between hunter and prey is rather blurred. The journey consists of three trials to join a Masonic-like temple, and only then will the boy get the girl. Was it mentioned that this is all supposed to take place in an Egyptian jungle with characters reminiscent of the European aristocracy of the 18th century?
On the face of it, it's quite absurd. But strangely enough, it works—due in no small part to Mozart's masterful setting of Emanuel Schikaneder's libretto. While still considered an opera in the classical tradition, the work looks forward to the blended action and music of the Romantic. In the final production of the 2011-'12 season, directed by Matthew Lata and conducted by Graeme Jenkins, The Dallas Opera takes both the comedy and absurdity to the absolute limit and knocks it out of the park.
From the opening, the visual aspects of the production are deeply engaging and well-presented. The scenic design by Jörg Zimmermann ranges from simple drops to elaborate jungle scene pieces and flows exceptionally well between the two─there's even a nod to the famous Karl Friedrich Schinkel-designed production of 1815 with the half dome of lights backing up the Queen of the Night. What stands out exceptionally well are the moving set pieces of the temple ruins. Each piece is intricately carved and filled with detail – ranging from statue guards to a beer-spewing lion. The set is lit with a design by Duane Schuler, basic but extremely effective.
The costume design by Renata Kalanke is simplistic, but not in a negative sense; outside of a few costumes, most of the characters wear simple solid-colored clothing in the European style; pale blue for our hero and heroine, solid black for both the priests of the temple as well as the villain. For our comic sidekick (the bird-catcher), the costume is much more elaborate with a regal plumage in greens and yellows (hence the blurring of man and bird). Only a few minor details detract from the whole: Monostatos and his gang are painted green (which actually tones down a less than flattering portrayal in the original libretto) but, on opening night, there were patches that had either rubbed off or were missed. Combined with the lack of any type of paint on their hands, the contrast caught the light and took away from the effect.
As for the singers: the music is where the production shines the brightest. The role of the hero, Tamino is sung by Shawn Mathey, who carries the lion's share of the work throughout the opera. Mathey's tone is rich and full-bodied and he navigates the minefield that is Mozart's score without breaking a sweat. Opposite Mathey is local favorite Ava Pine as Pamina, the girl who holds Tamino's heart. She provides the perfect foil for the dramatic tone of Mathey by bringing a sweet tone to the table, dripping with a sincere and loving sound that is not only a joy to listen to, but adds to the theatrical drama of the evening.
In the role of Papageno, Tamino's (semi-)faithful sidekick, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi nearly steals the evening with not only his voice, but his onstage shtick that adds to the comic nature of the role and gets the biggest laughs in the piece. While Papageno may not complete the trials with the same degree of success that Tamino does, he gets his reward in the end as well when he meets Papagena, sung by soprano Angela Mannino. The pair brings the house down in the second act with their final duet, singing about the family that they want to have...and the list gets longer and longer. Before they know it, the stage is filled with little Papagenos and Papagenas.
Rounding out the headlining roles are that of the villain, the Queen of the Night (L'ubica Vargicova), and her opposite, the priest Sarastro (Raymond Aceto). Vargicova has some wonderful moments as the evil Queen, though there are a few notes at the top of the range that seemed forced, and as a consequence are a bit shrill. An exceedingly difficult role to sing (as it's steeped in what would come to be known as bel canto style), at times Vargicova lacks the relaxed tone that makes the music effortless and successful. Aceto is wonderful to watch as the noble priest, but there are a few moments in which his deeper notes are covered by the orchestra; it is disappointing because Aceto obviously has the register for the role, but the payoff notes are difficult to hear.
The orchestra is aptly led by Graeme Jenkins, supporting the action onstage without (for the most part) overpowering or detracting from the stage material. Tempos are kept lively and the music never drags as a result (which can happen more often than one thinks, especially in opera).
The opera is a silly diversion from everyday life with a look into an alternate world of monsters, dancing animals, and trials and tribulations that one would never normally expect. But it's also a fun ride through a hilarious story with some dynamite performances that can be measured against any other out there.
Definitely a "do not miss" production.
◊ Don't forget that you can see a free simulcast of this production at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28. Parking is free, too. At last count, more than 30,500 tickets have been requested, and it is poised to make the record books for most attended opera showing in the United States. (The record was 32,000 for a simulcast of the San Francisco Opera's Aida in 2010.) You can request these tickets at www.dallasopera.org/cowboys. Also, TheaterJones will be tailgating in the parking lot before the simulcast, come by and say hello!