Hanging on every note, and word

Music: Peabody's great care in bridging language barriers helps underscore the magic in the witty, lovely `Flute.'

March 15, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Because so few of the great operas are in English, Americans sometimes assume that the words can take a back seat to the music and the spectacle. So long as we understand the gist of what's going on, there's no need to sweat the small points.

Unfortunately, that philosophy doesn't quite work with Mozart's "The Magic Flute." It isn't just that the opera boasts a plot so complicated that even in summary it seems confusing; there's also such wit and subtlety to the libretto that it's hard to get the full flavor of the drama without paying close attention to the words.

Dealing with the language issue, then, is of paramount importance for the Peabody Opera Theatre, which will open its student production of "The Magic Flute" this evening. As Roger Brunyate, the company's artistic director, explains, the Peabody production will try to balance the musical advantages of performing the work in its original language, German, with the benefits of making sure the audience is able to follow every word.

Making this particularly tricky is the fact that "The Magic Flute" is closer in form to a singspiel -- literally, a "singing play" -- than an opera, in that it alternates arias and musical passages with sections of spoken dialogue. So the Peabody has decided on a sort of bilingual approach, with the singing in German, and the speaking in English.

Brunyate's motivation is as much in the interest of historical intent as in having mercy on the audience. "The Magic Flute" had deep roots in the popular theater of Mozart's day. Its assortment of gods, genies, heroic royals and comic commoners was intended to have a broad, popular appeal, and Brunyate doesn't want Baltimore opera-goers to miss out on any of it.

In addition to the English dialogue, the Peabody production will also feature surtitles, so non-German speakers can follow the words as they're being sung. But here, too, "The Magic Flute" poses some particular problems.

"I've done surtitles now for, oh, 20 shows, I suppose, and usually, you write a precis of what's being said," Brunyate explains. "But in this case, because so much of [the effect] depends on these rhyming couplets, it seemed necessary to match the rhythm of the singing on the screen. And even, during the more comic sections, to make some attempt at rhymes.

"So in effect, what I've written is almost a singing translation. . . . For 80 percent of the slides, you can hear the music as you read them. This means they're going to move rather more quickly than I'm used to doing here."

It may seem like a lot of work, but those not intimately familiar with the opera will doubtless appreciate the Peabody company's efforts. "The Magic Flute," as the critic Phil G. Goulding has written, is the sort of opera that "for maximum enjoyment . . . demands more advance attention than `Don Giovanni' or `Figaro.' " What he suggests is reading through the libretto a few times before seeing the opera, as plot summaries make it seem "like a scary and sometimes lustful drama . . . an outright farce, a treatise on wisdom and reason, [or] a delightful musical entertainment."

In truth, "The Magic Flute" is pretty much all of the above, with a score that manages to make all of the opera's extremes seem enticing. It boasts one of the most beautiful and demanding coloratura arias in the repertoire, the Queen of the Night's "Der Holle rache" (which requires agility, bell-like clarity and a rock-solid high F). It's also blessed with one of Mozart's best arias for bass, the priest Sarastro's solemn "O Isis und Osiris."

As for the plot, "The Magic Flute" takes place in an ancient Egypt that never was. In brief, Prince Tamino is rescued from a storm by three ladies in service of the Queen of the Night, and is paired with a poor bird catcher named Papageno to rescue the Queen's daughter, Pamina, from the evil priest Sarastro.

But it turns out that Sarastro, far from being the demon described by the Queen, is in fact an apostle of love and brotherhood. Not only are Tamino and Papageno initiated into the mysteries of Sarastro's sect, but Pamina -- who has fallen madly for Tamino, as he has for her -- is about to join as well when her mother the Queen shows up, desperate to destroy Sarastro.

But after a trial of fire and water, the loving couple triumph over the Queen and her minions, and even Papageno finds a mate. Needless to say, all live happily ever after.

`Magic Flute'

What: Peabody Opera Theatre, Hajime Teri Murai, conductor

When: Tonight through Saturday, 7: 30 p.m.

Where: Friedberg Hall, the Peabody Conservatory

Tickets: $22, ($11 Senior Citizens, $8 Students with ID)

Call: 410-659-8124

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