Flute Magic: Seattle Opera’s Die Zauberflöte in Double Time

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Seattle Opera, soloists, Gary Thor Wedow (conductor), Chris Alexander (director), Rosa Mercedes (choreographer), Robert Dahlstrom with Robert Schaub (set design), Zandra Rhodes (costumes), Duane Schuler (lighting designer), Beth Kirchhoff (chorus director), Philip A. Kelsey and David McDade (musical preparation), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 7-8.5.2011 (BJ)


Tamino: John Tessier/Jonathan Boyd
Three Ladies: Anya Matanovic, Marcy Stonikas, Lindsey Anderson
Papageno: Philip Cutlip/Leigh Melrose
Queen of the Night: Emily Hindrichs/Mari Moriya
Monostatos: Doug Jones
Pamina: Christine Brandes/Hannan Alattar
Three Boys: Casi Goodman, Benjamin Richardson, Alissa Henderson/Madeleine Freebairn, Max Laycock, Rachel Zamora
Speaker: Philip Skinner
Sarastro: Ilya Bannik/Keith Miller
First Priest: Eric Neuville
Second Priest: Erik Anstine
Papagena: Ani Maldjian
First Armored Man: John Christopher Adams
Second Armored Man: Jonathan Silvia

Among all the versions I’ve seen over the years, I cannot recall a Magic Flute that came close to Seattle Opera’s new production in one fascinating respect. Witnessing it at McCaw Hall, performed by two excellent casts, made me feel the way I surely would have felt if I had been in Emanuel Schikaneder’s suburban Viennese theater when Mozart’s great opera premiered in 1791.

Schikaneder, the actor-singer who wrote the libretto and played the first Papageno, was the manager of a troupe that presented operas, often of a fairy-tale character, in an atmosphere far removed from the “high art” tone that nowadays attaches to opera and other forms of “serious music.” Decidedly not aristocratic, the audience came largely from the middle and lower classes, and it came with a grass-roots predilection for folk music, a taste for imaginative innovation, and, most of all, an eagerness for sheer unpretentious fun.

Crucial aspects of the new production included Robert Dahlstrom’s and Robert Schaub’s abstract, pyramid-and-triangle-dominated set, Duane Schuler’s brilliantly effective lighting, Zandra Rhodes’s gorgeous costumes, Rosa Mercedes’s graceful yet often hilarious choreography, and conductor Gary Thor Wedow’s authoritative musical leadership. All of this abetted stage director Chris Alexander in the creation of an intoxicatingly imaginative show blending beauty with irreverence, and seriousness with – yes – sheer fun. I was quite jealous of all the kids in the audience for whom this magical Flute must have been an ideal first exposure to opera. The sexist elements in the libretto that can embarrass a modern audience were dealt with by the simple expedient of joking them away, and the only touch that I thought a mistake was to have Pamina seemingly still thinking, under her mother’s influence, of stabbing Sarastro even while he was singing “In diesen heil’gen Hallen.”

There was much talk in advance about how the production would use technology for imaginative purposes. There were indeed some telling examples of that, especially in the use of “black light” to show us personages seemingly suspended in midair. But many of the “special effects” were refreshingly low-tech. A group of Anubis figures, suggestive of the opera’s Masonic links with ancient Egypt and serving as informal stage-hands, at one moment charmingly waved birds around on the ends of long poles. At another point, the Three Boys (listed in the program as Three Spirits, and in each cast actually played by two girls and a boy) entered on scooters that weren’t even motorized.

Alexander sensibly left the curtain down almost throughout the overture, of which Wedow led one of the best performances I can remember. Offbeat accents that too many conductors neglect were realized with a light but effective touch, and the orchestra sounded splendid, as it (and Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus) did throughout the opera, except for a few solos associated with Tamino’s magic instrument that made surprisingly little aural impression.

On stage, both casts were unfailingly effective in dramatic terms, but Saturday’s principals for the most part outshone Sunday afternoon’s vocally. The exceptions were in the roles of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. Ilya Bannik’s flawed German diction and lack of real legato were compounded by the relative weakness of his low notes, and he tended to get ahead of Wedow’s beat. Keith Miller was better in these respects, and made a convincing Sarastro, if not the most majestic one imaginable. As to the Queen, I was clearly at odds with most of the Saturday audience, who gave Emily Hindrichs the biggest roar of approval when curtain calls were taken. Given the clarity of her top notes, and some lovely tone, this was understandable, but I found her singing – and intermittent screaming – somewhat over-emotional. On the Sunday, Mari Moriya, after a shaky start, achieved an aptly cold, cut-glass quality in the second half of her second aria.

Of two dramatically convincing Taminos (Tamini?), Saturday’s John Tessier sang with the subtler artistry, whereas the strong-voiced Jonathan Boyd was insistently loud and tended to biff accents out too emphatically. For Pamina, there was no contest: Christine Brandes had the role down perfectly, and sang it beautifully. Hanan Alattar’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” was so unfocused in line that it was hard even to listen to with due attention, and though her voice is pleasant enough in tone, she lacked clarity and firmness. Both Papagenos were excellent: Philip Cutlip is perhaps a tad more adorable as an actor, but Leigh Melrose runs him close vocally. Their duet with Ani Maldjian’s Papagena was supplemented by a slew of prefigured offspring, to totally endearing effect. All the other roles were strongly taken, including Doug Jones’s baleful yet pathetic Monostatos, Three Ladies who moved in witty synchronization with their music, two delightful sets of Boys/Girls/Spirits, an attractive Papagena in Ani Maldjian, and an impressive contingent of Sarastro’s underlings, including a Speaker–Philip Skinner–who displayed unusual independence of mind.

Alexander’s ending, with Tamino and Pamina turning their backs on the older generation, came as a thought-provoking surprise. Neither Sarastro, they clearly showed us, nor the Queen of the Night would command their allegiance from now on: having successfully negotiated their trials, they had acquired the strength to be their own man and woman. It has often been suggested that, in this opera, the Queen of the Night stands as an allegorical representation of the Roman Catholic church, and Sarastro rather more obviously as a representative of Freemasonry. Would it be fanciful to find in Alexander’s conclusion a scenario leading from adherence to church, by way of adherence to Masonic practices, to the triumph of individual as distinct from group thinking? It’s highly questionable whether such a thought could have been in Mozart’s mind, given his combination of devout Catholicism with adherence to Masonic ideals. But Schikaneder? Now, there was a man who got into very hot water with the Masonic establishment. Something of a Casanova in his personal life, he seems to have ended up a lapsed Freemason, and the idea of shrugging off any kind of group-think might well have appealed to him.

In sum, this was a truly magic Flute, musically superb if not perfect, theatrically masterly, philosophically challenging, and endlessly entertaining.  I’ve never enjoyed the work so much.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.