United States W.A. Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Virginia Opera, Mark Russell Smith (conductor), George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, VA 12.6.2013 (RRR)
Direction: Michael Shell
Sets: Troy Hourie
Costumes: Marie Anne Chiment
Lighting: Driscoll Otto
Sarastro: Kenneth Kellogg
Tamino: Matthew Plenk
Queen of the Night: Heather Buck
Papageno: David Pershall
Three Ladies: Natalie Polito, Courtney Miller, Sarah Williams
Monostatos: Ryan Connelly
Papagena: Amanda Opuszynski
Speaker: Matthew Scollin
Priests: David Blalock, Andre Chiang
Three Boys: Anna Maples, Fran Coleman, Kristen Choi
Armored Men: Ben Kwak, Matthew Scollin
One feels a slight bit of trepidation when a regional opera company takes on one of the masterpieces of the repertory—in this case, Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Can it live up? However, one need not have worried with the Virginia Opera’s production, which reached George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax on the evening of December 6th, 2013, after an earlier run beginning on November 8th elsewhere in the state. It did live up.
Vocally, things went very well indeed, with several outstanding performances. The only controversial note of the evening was the production itself, and that only partially. Stage director Michael Shell chose to set the opera as a dream. During the overture, the lights come up on a bed center stage. We also see a red tricycle, a baby bottle by the bed stand, and other appurtenances of a young family.
Husband and wife enter in pajamas; they are icily silent toward each other. They are obviously going through a rough spot. Without resolving the situation, they go to bed and fall asleep. Three mischievous sprites in white appear with flash lights, which sprinkle points of light over the couple, stardust-like.
A modern dream sequence ensues in which the husband is buffeted between men marching about in business suits and carrying briefcases. He ends up sitting at a desk, stamping papers. (Who are they? An army of divorce lawyers? And what is he doing with the papers?) The wife is similarly buffeted about. They cannot find each other in the crowd. The scene deepens the sense of alienation.
With the end of the overture, the modern dream sequence ends, and the opera begins in the more traditional setting following the libretto—an ancient, fantastical semi-Egyptian world. The husband becomes Prince Tamino and the wife, the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, held in the clutches of the supposedly evil Sarastro. Shell has obviously invited us to see the opera as the means through which the husband and wife try to find each other again, recapture their original love, and reconcile, though they only come to perceive each other anew under different identities—a familiar theatrical conceit. Tamino’s task is to save Pamina. This, then, is a traditional rescue opera, though in Shell’s conception, it is the marriage that is being rescued.
Once we are inside the opera, things go along in traditional ways. In fact, the more traditionally the material was handled (which was most of it), the better it went. However, Shell could not resist inserting anachronisms. The three Ladies who hand Tamino his mission behave like the Andrews Sisters. In case we missed the point, an old-fashioned microphone is placed before them. Some of the characters, including one of the Ladies, wear sunglasses. The Three boys shoot about on scooters. Demonstrators in front of Sarastro’s palace carry “Equality for All” signs. The English translation of the libretto indulges in some gaucheries: When Papageno and Tamino meet, Papageno is made to say, “I’m a dude like you.” In fact, the word “dude” is inauspiciously sprinkled throughout the opera.
In these places, Shell tries too hard to have fun with material which would have been more fun if left alone. The scenes in which there was the least amount of ironic detachment worked the best. Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schickaneder knew what they were doing.
This is not to suggest that Shell did not know what he was doing. While the anachronisms did not help me, they did not spoil my evening, which was a success—for which, of course, Shell deserves credit. The comedy was played very broadly and there was a bit too much Gilbert and Sullivan in it but, after all, The Magic Flute is a Singspiel. And Shell did pull off his conceit of the opera as marriage therapy, as Tamino and Pamina are reunited at the end of the opera, back in the same marriage bed in which they began as husband and wife, but now happily reconciled—thanks to the illumination of the shared dream. Shell portrays the end of the opera altogether as a general reconciliation between all the characters, including Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, but seen in its quintessence in marriage, which is presented as the ideal relationship. This, then, was a fundamentally sweet-natured interpretation.
Tenor Matthew Plenk as Tamino and soprano Nadine Sierra as Pamina were both excellent. Plenk especially came into his own with his brilliant solo before Sarastro’s palace, followed by the duet between Tamino and the temple First Priest. Sierra has a rich and steady voice, which she deployed so effectively in her dramatic suicide solo in the second act. But that was simply one high point in an evening of high points for her alone and together with Plenk. They were very well matched.
Baritone David Pershall grew in his portrayal of Papageno as the evening progressed until he had pretty much endeared himself to everyone by its end. He is obviously very comfortable in the role, and he sang as well as he acted—impressing particularly in the tragic-hilarious solo in which he considers hanging himself. One of the most enjoyable moments of the evening was when he was finally united with his Papagena, sung and acted with vivacity by soprano Amanda Opuszynski. Their famous duet was sheer delight.
As the Queen of the Night, soprano Heather Buck dazzled with her easy reach of the stratospheric heights of two of the most famous coloratura arias in opera. She found and played the menace in her character well. As Sarastro, bass Kenneth Kellogg was a commanding presence, but had some trouble reaching his bottom notes. As Monostatos, tenor Ryan Connelly provided humor, but no menace. The Three Ladies—soprano Natalie Polito and mezzo-sopranos Courtney Miller and Sarah Williams—had a little trouble synchronizing at the very beginning of the evening, but were fine for the rest of it, depending on how one reacted to the Andrews Sisters shtick.
Conductor Mark Russell Smith gave excellent support to the singers throughout, keeping everything in balance, while ensuring the orchestra played with great transparency. He and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra made for a great pair. Set designer Troy Hourie deserves kudos for his temple set, which was impressive both on its outside and its inside.
Robert R. Reilly