Imagination, wit at play in `Magic Flute'

Opera Review

April 04, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With its mix of fantasy, philosophy, masonic symbolism, humor, perplexity and, for contemporary tastes, political incorrectness, The Magic Flute represents as many challenges as pleasures.

It's easiest, of course, to forget about any of the weighty or inconsistent elements in this opera and just soak up the endless enchantment of Mozart's music. Washington National Opera's production manages to deal with the plot and serve up the musical goods in equally enlightening fashion.

Originally designed for the Los Angles Opera (Placido Domingo is general director of both companies), the staging is a triumph of visual imagination, charm and wit. Gerald Scarfe, noted for his political and animated cartoon work, conjures up quickly shifting skies, breakaway pyramids, a floating bird/boat and an exceedingly colorful menagerie of beasts for the opera's hero to tame with his specially powered flute.

Scarfe's costumes add extra layers of prettiness or whimsy to this dream world. The wise Sarastro and his robed followers seem to have taken a few fashion tips from Ming the Merciless, while their strangely uniform, vaguely anthropoid faces and frozen hair styles suggest a little debt to Planet of the Apes.

Sarastro's duplicitous servant Monostatos has been transformed here from a Moor (the original libretto contains uncomfortable racial references) to an absurd, exaggerated creature whose color and quandary provide a variation on Kermit the Frog's famous lament, "It's not easy being green."

All of the eye-catching elements never get in the way of the music, which, on Saturday at the Kennedy Center, was delivered richly and stylishly.

Aside from a few spots when singers and orchestra parted rhythmic company, Heinz Fricke provided steady, sensitive guidance in the pit on opening night. Flashes of drama had real bite; the lyrical moments were allowed to blossom unhurriedly; comic passages were deftly propelled.

Andrea Rost's exquisite, melting vocalism made Pamina the true center of the opera, just as she should be. As Tamino, Michael Schade offered a sweet tenor and exceptionally elegant phrasing. Rod Gilfry sang colorfully as Papageno and proved a genuinely funny actor. As Sarastro, Kwangchul Youn did not have enough tonal heft for the lowest notes, but otherwise sang with authority and warmth.

Amanda Pabyan tackled the Queen of the Night's fiendish coloratura gamely and brightly, but didn't quite make it securely all the way up to the top. The Three Ladies (Keri Alkema, Ann McMahon Quintero, Barbara Quintiliani) were well-matched in vocal sparkle and had a field day carrying out their Andrews Sisters-with-Spears-and-Cleavage stage business. Robert Baker was the vivid Monostatos. Kyle Ketelsen delivered the Speaker's lines with a ripe, glowing bass-baritone.

The remainder of the cast, along with chorus and orchestra, filled in the vibrant musical picture nicely. Sir Peter Hall provided the original directorial concept for the production, efficiently directed here by Stanley M. Garner.

Although no staging is likely to ever reveal all the secrets embedded in the opera, this one clearly and compellingly unleashes its potent magic.

Remaining performances of The Magic Flute are at 7 tonight and Friday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and April 12 and 15, 1:30 p.m. April 17 at the Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues, N.W. Tickets are $45 to $290. Call 800-876-7372.

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