Friday, March 23, 2012

The Magic Flute -- a review

Apollo's Fire: Mozart's The Magic Flute
at Finney Chapel, Oberlin (March 22)

By Nicholas Jones

AF Tamino & 3 boysMozart’s Magic Flute is an appealing blend of silly and sublime, heroic, romantic, and ultimately wonderfully comic. Like the song from A Funny Thing, it offers ‘Something familiar, / Something peculiar, / Something for everyone: / A comedy tonight!’

We have a heroic prince and his beloved, a princess stolen from her mother by an evil sorcerer; it’s the material of operatic romance, but (like the dragon that opens the show) the evil seems to vanish at the flick of Mozart’s pen. (In this witty staging, the dragon was done in by violin bows and the conductor’s baton!)

We have the joking servant, always on the lookout for something to eat and drink, who nonetheless endures the opera’s trials along with his more serious master, and comes out on the other side with a new bride (with whom he sings one of the most inventive love duets in music, the love song of two birds!). 

It’s a romantic tale where help is always just around the corner (in trouble? just play your magic flute or your enchanted glockenspiel).

Apollo’s Fire’s ambitious production of Mozart’s last opera is the highpoint of the group’s 20th anniversary year. We AF Magic Flute Papageno & Papagenasaw it on opening night in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel; subsequent performances are Friday in Severance Hall and Saturday at Cartwright Auditorium at Kent State. A discretely shortened version, the opera lasted about two and half hours, including a generous intermission.

The staging, while necessarily spare compared to (say) the Metropolitan Opera, was witty and effective. The costumes were elegant reminders of rococo court life and of the visual imagination of Mozart’s time (Papageno and his bride in feathered garb reminiscent of the wonderful quetzal-feather headdress brought to Vienna from Montezuma’s court).

The orchestra, conducted by impresaria Jeannette Sorrell, was a large one by Apollo’s Fire standards, and showed the very high standards of musicianship we are used to with that group. The overture, the real show-off piece for the orchestra, after a few ensemble problems in the slow introduction, took the allegro at a blistering pace and pulled it off with panache.

Throughout the opera, sensitive playing from the winds gave the singers expressive support, and during the serious ‘Masonic’ moments, the large brass section was exceptionally sonorous. We should probably also mention the frequent thunderclaps indicating the displeasure of the gods – a combination of timpani and an off-stage thunder sheet (played from the balcony by production manager Thomas Frattare).
AF Magic Flute Orchestra
The orchestra and chorus were seated in the back half of the stage, and the action took place in front of them, in a somewhat narrow space. The resulting limitation on dramatic movement was more than made up for by the presence of two wonderful baroque dance specialists (Carlos Fittante and Robin Gilbert)—of whom I would have liked to have seen more.

Because the orchestra was behind the singers (rather than in a pit), they were in a true sense a ‘back-up band’ for the vocalists. Though this caused occasional problems of ensemble (the singers could not see Sorrell most of the time), it put the singers closer to the audience and enabled them to sing with, rather than over top of, the orchestra. At Finney Chapel, the singers wore head-mikes for the spoken dialogue which increased intelligiblity in that relatively large hall.

AF Magic Flute TaminoThe soloists were a group of generally fine singers with quite different vocal qualities. Tenor Ross Hauck, a very handsome Tamino, sang with lithe expression and commanding presence: the role can often seem stiff, but he made it dramatically and vocally flexible after some initial difficulties. His partner in trials, the feathery Papageno, was sung by Kelly Markgraf, whose big baritone voice (and comically expressive face) conveyed his obvious delight in the role – and in life in general.

Soprano Teresa Wakim as Pamina has a perfect early-music voice, supporting her plangent arias with an architecture of sustained and astonishingly clear vocal line. The vocal fireworks of the Queen of the Night were spectacularly set off by Rachel Copeland, whose high arpeggios in her revenge aria (probably the most famous motifs of the opera) were delivered like burning hot knife thrusts.

It is a strange feature of The Magic Flute that the Queen, with so much dramatic music to sing, is put aside at the end like so much kitchen trash. She loses out to the magisterial priest Sarastro, whose music – uniformly slow and low – is the complete opposite of hers. Baritone Edward Crafts brought an appropriate solemnity to Sarastro, accompanied by an welcome affability of manner, but his singing in the (very low) registers of the bass role seemed ungrounded.
 AF Magic Flute 3 ladies & Papageno
The three ladies of the Queen of the Night (Lianne Coble, who doubled as a charming Papagena, Amanda Powell, and Raquel Winnica Young) and the two priests who accompany Sarastro (Jeffrey Strauss and Joseph Gaines) sparkled in excellent ensemble singing. The three ‘boys’ were charmingly portrayed by local youngsters Rhuna Wall, Ryan Vincent, and Clarie Peyrebrune. The minor baddie, Monastatos – thwarted at every turn in his lustful intentions – was (probably wisely) not played as a Moor; the part was sung with playfully villainous glee by Jeremy Gilpatric.

Advance publicity for the performance made a good deal of of the keyed glockenspiel that Apollo’s Fire borrowed from England for this performance (something like what we surmise Mozart to have played at the premiere). The instrument was probably more compelling in theory than in practice: the sound was, to our ears, tinny and not as ‘magical’ as the context demands.

Photographs by Steven Mastroianni, courtesy of Apollo's Fire.

Nicholas Jones is Professor of English at Oberlin College, and a keen amateur musician.

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Published on March 23, 2012
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Tammela said...

Sounds like this was a real treat, Nick. I'd have loved to have seen it.

CHEN said...

I wish I were there...
According to what I've heard, I think the interaction between the orchestra and actors is very intersting: an acter hides in the orchestra and pretends to be one of the instrumentalists...
I usually don't pay much attention to the conductor and the instrumentalists in an opera, cause they hide somewhere below the stage. This kind of arrangement might have change my way of looking at an opera.