New San Francisco “Flute”: Sketchy, Colloquial, Rewarding

United StatesUnited States  Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of San Francisco Opera, Rory MacDonald (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 13.6.2012 (HS)


Pamina: Heidi Stober
Tamino: Alek Shrader
Papageno: Nathan Gunn
The Queen Of The Night: Albina Shagimuratova
Sarastro: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Lady: Melody Moore
Second Lady: Lauren McNeese
Third Lady: Renée Tatum
Papagena: Nadine Sierra
Monostatos: Greg Fedderly
The Speaker: David Pittsinger
First Armored Man: Beau Gibson
Second Armored Man: Jordan Bisch


Director: Harry Silverstein
Production Designer: Jun Kaneko
Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson
Choreographer: Lawrence Pech


The Magic Flute: Heidi Stober (Pamina) and Alek Shrader (Tamino). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Normally, before I review an opera performance, even of a piece I know well, I refresh myself on the music and libretto and read up on what’s behind the production. For San Francisco Opera’s The Magic Flute, in a new production that debuted Wednesday, I went in cold. In the end, that might have been a good thing, because that’s pretty much the way most audiences will encounter this odd duck of design and translation.

Yes, translation. SFO general director David Gockley put together his own English libretto and managed to convince several world-class singers to learn it, a feat in itself. Not only did he cut way back on the dialogue, which can seem interminable at times, but he put it in contemporary colloquial language and slang. This particular approach so offended my friend Julie that she was in tears at intermission at what she felt was a violation of a text that was meaningful to her. She wasn’t against performing in translation; she referenced the W.H. Auden-Chester Kallman version for a U.S. television production (when original productions were actually made for TV). She just found this one coarse and vulgar.

Well, yeah. Mozart and Shikaneder used no hifalutin’ language in their performances. Let us not forget that this was written for what the genteel program notes may call “a suburban theater” but really was an alehouse. Shikaneder, the original Papageno, may not have dissed Tamino as a “boy toy,” but for a libretto to create the same snarky impact for an audience inundated by modern media, it fits.

And, speaking of media, this high-tech production is the first at SFO to use entirely digital means. The set consists of several movable screens colored only by animated projections. The work of artist Jun Koneko, these projections consist mostly of colored lines that snake across the screens, sometimes abstract, sometimes depicting textures. But they are always geometrical, as are his primary-color Noh-inspired costumes—lots of triangles in both—a subtle underlining of Masonic symbols, which are part of the texture of the opera.

Still, on first viewing, I found the constant motion distracting. In interviews, Koneko says he based his design on repeated listening of the score, and recognizes that opera is “totally” about the music. But his costumes and moving background squiggles kept distracting me from Mozart, and that’s not a good thing.

The musicians, for their part, did their best to prevent my ears from wandering. Scottish conductor Rory MacDonald led a vivid, energetic performance, and found apt balances with voices that showed a wide range of intensity. Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, by all accounts the world’s reigning Queen of the Night, demonstrated why with an utterly fearless, technically brilliant and astoundingly intense performance that simply stole the show. Baritone Nathan Gunn’s Papageno had warmth, presence, personality and humor, never at the expense of sleek, subtle tone and lovely phrasing.

A pre-performance announcement said that tenor Alek Shrader was singing despite a head cold. This may account for his covered tone, but he gained strength as the performance persisted, and displayed a sweet sound and good phrasing. Soprano Heidi Stober, his Pamina, clad in blue outfits that called to mind Alice in Wonderland, maneuvered her way past the shoals of Pamina’s treacherous music, although seemingly at the expense of vocal color and power.

As Sarastro, bass Kristinn Sigmundsson established a solid presence and phrased nobly, but could not quite get the richness from the low notes that establish the character musically. David Pittsinger as The Speaker made a better impact. Tenor Greg Fedderly continued his string of sprightly comic performances (previously Brighella, Don Basilio and Pang here) with a rollicking Monostatos. Soprano Nadine Sierra put on a few too many cute moves but sang prettily as Papagena. Melody Moore, Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum made an appropriately oversexed trio of ladies fawning over Tamino, and blended their voices artfully.

Of some note is how Gockley’s libretto and director Harry Silverstein’s direction addressed the original treatment of Monostatos and the overt male chauvinism that runs through the piece, where women are demeaned as, at the very least, untrustworthy. Noh theater may have little to do with The Magic Flute, but the white face paint and his abstract costume downplayed the racial overtones of the Moorish Monostatos character. In this version he’s dangerous because he’s a deranged thug not because he is black. And in one stroke, which picks up on Pamina’s decision to walk through the tests of fire and water with Tamino, this production has Pamina pick up the magic flute and play them through the second test when Tamino stumbles, thus making it truly the couple’s triumph and not just his.

Harvey Steiman