The youthful cast hit high notes and low Music review: Conductor's slow tempos take the lilt and lightness out of the Washington Opera's 'Magic Flute.'

January 09, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Washington Opera's revival of its 1990 production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" is neither up to the company's usually high standards nor as good as one remembers its having been when it was new. Part of the reason is surely that the current incarnation, which opened Wednesday at the Kennedy Center and is sung in English, seems at odds with itself.

"The Magic Flute" of eight years ago did not take itself seriously. The tone was set by Zack Brown's charming scenery and costumes, which evoked the fairy-tale atmosphere of a child's imagination. And, if not always attaining the highest musical level, the conducting, singing and acting matched the decor.

Brown's sets and costumes remain, and many of the singers in Wednesday's cast strived for the light and bright, but conductor Heinz Fricke seemed to be aiming for something weightier and more profound. As Otto Klemperer proved in a classic recording 35 years ago, slow tempos need not produce monotony fatal to "The Magic Flute."

But Klemperer achieved awesome weight and authority with a great orchestra. Fricke -- an estimable musician, but no Klemperer -- attempts something similar with a much smaller band, with results that sound inevitably undernourished.

The conductor occasionally failed his singers. While tempos that are fast can make it difficult for singers to articulate properly, tempos that are as slow as Fricke's often were can make it equally difficult to sustain pitch.

The youthful cast was uneven. Daniel Mobbs handled Papageno's music easily and relished its earthy humor. But while this approach is much better than a colorless Papageno who could be brother to the serious Prince Tamino, Mobbs often appeared to be trying too hard to be funny.

As Tamino, David Miller -- a tenor with an impressively big voice -- was vocally secure and attractive and, while forthright rather than noble or elegant, had the right dramatic instincts.

I suspect that Mary Dunleavy, who missed Monday's dress rehearsal because of illness, can sing the Queen of the Night more impressively than she did on this occasion. Her singing underwent heavy weather in the first act but was much more fluent and incisive in the second.

Aficionados interested in diva futures might think about investing in Theresa Santiago. This young soprano sang Pamina with appealing warmth, poignancy and control. Any singer who commands her kind of power and can still project fragile innocence can look forward to a big career.

Eric Owens looked magnificent and projected magnanimity as Sarastro, but an occasional absence of nimbleness and a tendency to fade on low notes suggested that he was a little overmatched by the role. Jay Baylon's Speaker was much more impressive; he was firm, expressive and sensitive to nuances in a manner that one does not ordinarily expect in so young a singer.

In other roles, Laura Knoop, Patricia Wulf and Julia Anne Wolf were appealing as the Three Ladies, as were Robert Baker as Monostatos, Angela Turner Wilson as Papagena, and Corey Evan Rotz as the Two Men in Armor. Peter Russo, Jimmy Leathers and Rachel Robinson were charming and lovely as the Three Spirits.

'The Magic Flute'

What: The Washington Opera

Where: Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington

When: Tomorrow, Wednesday, and Jan. 21, 24, 27, 30, and Feb. 2, 5, 10, 12 and 14 at 7: 30 p.m.; Jan. 18 and Feb. 8 at 2: 30 p.m.

Tickets: $36-$205

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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