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Friday, July 17, 2015

Woods So Wild

The Magic Flute, Glimmerglass Opera, July 10

The Magic Flute
is a mess of an opera that defies narrative convention, keeps you guessing at who’s the good guy, and lets the wrong person rescue the ingenue, among many other weirdnesses. None of which has curbed the insane popularity of the piece. It has great tunes, but you expect that from Mozart.

Sean Panikkar as Tamino
Photo by Karli Cadel
Re-setting its time and place is so irresistible to opera directors that it’s become a potentially embarrassing fetish, but the production that opened the Glimmerglass Festival’s current season takes us to a forest with Native American overtones, on a glorious set by Troy Hourie, whose impressive artwork also can be found on the Festival grounds.

Director Madeline Sayet didn’t stage the overture until its very end, for which I’m grateful, and even then it was a necessary device to show Tamino’s transition from the fury of the modern business world into the forest where the magic would occur. Sean Panikkar sang splendidly in that role, maintaining a wide-eyed innocence even as he takes on the challenge of rescuing a maiden whose portrait causes him instantly to fall in love.

He meets Papageno, originally a birdcatcher, now a hunter, incongruously costumed in camo and blaze orange. Ben Edquist, who was Jigger in last season’s Carousel, has a dynamic, acrobatic presence and a voice to match. This is the role that Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, wrote for himself, giving himself two great solos and an endearing duet, among other numbers. Edquist was more than up to the task – literally more, slipping into the tendency to telegraph the jokes in the texts.

But he and the entire production also were hobbled by that text. Adapted by the Festival’s resident lyrist, Kelley Rourke, it showed how little she knows her craft. “Sun” doesn’t rhyme with “stunned,” nor does “error” with “peril,” to name but two of many, many examples. The lyrics too often seemed forced into the music’s demands, settling for limp, passive-voice-laden phrases – not to mention phrases that made no sense at all, like “you hold the key to every question” – giving an overall sense of amateurishness to the libretto.

Adapting classic operas into English can be a challenge, but The Magic Flute is essentially a musical comedy, and there’s plenty of precedent in American musical comedy tradition that shows the effectiveness of well-written lyrics. Kenneth Branagh’s sadly neglected 2006 film of the opera re-set it to take place during World War I, and Stephen Fry produced a libretto that, in spite of a few technical lapses, shows far better how well this can be accomplished.

Two other terrific voices belonged to Jacqueline Echols, as Pamina, whose Act Two aria, Englishized from “Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden,” was stunning, and So Young Park, who gave out her pair of Queen of the Night arias with passion, precision, and gusto.

Her numbers are more dazzling than those of her nemesis, Sarastro, who is soon revealed to be a figurehead of Good. Solomon Howard brings an imposing presence to the role, although he wasn’t finding ease in his lowest register on opening night. He also had to put up with the strange lab-coat costuming also worn by his followers, giving them a disturbingly cultish look. True, the original was inspired by the Masons, to the which both Mozart and Schikaneder belonged, but the more you can downplay that aspect, the better – the piece still maintains an appealing level of nonsensicality.

Kudos to Young Artist Rhys Lloyd Talbot, whose brief moment as The Speaker was beautifully done, informed with a lovely stillness.

The opera is rife with symbolism that probably wasn’t contemporaneously apparent and has since become even more obscure. Thus, to costume the Three Ladies without veils works fine. But don’t ask them to play petulance. That’s an attitude that brings out the worst in opera performers, who wave their arms around with the abandon of community theater tradition. The voices – Young Artists Raquel González, Aleksandra Romano, and Claudia Chapa – were excellent, as were those of the Three Spirits who always arrive in the nick of time – Joelle Lachance, Samuel Solomon, and Andrew Pulver, in robes so regal that the spangles were like fireworks.

Conductor Carolyn Kuan led the top-flight orchestra with a never-flagging sense of the joy of Mozart’s music, which in this piece shows off his tremendous range of styles.

Overall, the concept was intriguing, but the execution needed more polish. But in the end, Mozart triumphed through the trials, as he always does.

The Magic Flute
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
English adaptation by Kelley Rourke
Conducted by Carolyn Kuan
Directed by Madeline Sayet
Glimmerglass Festival, July 10, 2015

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