WNO’s charming, colorful “Magic Flute”

The Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek) in a high dudgeon. (Credit: Scott Suchman)
The Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek) in a high dudgeon. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, May 6, 2014 – What’s not to like in Mozart’s popular comic opera “The Magic Flute” (aka “Die Zauberflöte” in the original German)?

In the span of three hours we meet a scary, autocratic high priest with a heart of gold; an evil queen who fires off a bucketload of high Fs when irritated; a princely hero who’s less sophisticated than Forrest Gump; terrifying ordeals most of which we never get to see; a menagerie of funny animals; and finally, a garrulous and hilarious bird-catcher and plenty of Masonic symbolism. (But nothing about that secret handshake.)

The only thing that’s missing here is a genuinely compelling plot, although clearly the motif is that of a morality play with virtue facing off against evil.

But no matter. Mozart’s brilliant score has kept this slightly bizarre confection aloft for nearly 225 years and counting. And the Washington National Opera (WNO) is doing its best to keep that record intact in its regular season finale production of the composer’s final opera, which premiered at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House this past weekend.

Written as a German “singspiel”—a generally comic opera that intersperses spoken dialogue with vocal music—“The Magic Flute” is a classic early example of “opera lite,” something of a predecessor to the popular operettas and Broadway musicals of our more recent times. Unfortunately, Mozart, already experiencing poor health, did not long survive to savor his opera’s successful debut.

Nonetheless, nothing, it seems, could keep this composer’s good nature down for long, and the mood of this opera is generally funny and lighthearted, particularly when birdman Papageno is around. At its best, the opera plays out a bit like a fairy tale with a few slightly scary scenes but a happy ending where all the good guys get everything they want and deserve.

The only problem with this opera is, as we’ve already suggested, is its relatively stiff and somewhat didactic plot, based loosely on Masonic initiation rituals. If you’re not fully in on the connection, you might find yourself questioning why the opera’s characters go through with these formalized challenges and ordeals.

Enter WNO’s current cartoon-colorful production—a co-production, actually, that’s been shared with other companies including the San Francisco opera. It was designed by Jun Kaneko, an artist who’s best known as the creator of large, often whimsical ceramic sculptures.

Putting on his thinking cap, Mr. Kaneko has created a vision for this production that tosses Plautine comedy, Kabuki theater, medieval morality plays, commedia dell’arte, and modern circus clowning into a blender, out of which emerges a fairy tale of human comity where reason, nobility and genuine virtue triumph over temptation. Every member of the current Congress might benefit by taking in one of these performances.

The medicine goes down easily due to the bright and generally sunny colors and costumes that give this production its distinctive look and feel. Characters are clad in more or less symbolic costumes, some festooned with fantastic coats, hoops, or headpieces. Since “Magic Flute” is dramatically more symbol than substance, Mr. Kaneko does away with conventional sets entirely, projecting ever-changing, ever-morphing primary color backdrop designs against a series of sliding screens.

Colors change along with the mood, but the dominant impression one gets is of a precocious, geometrically-inclined little kid drawing intricate designs on construction paper with a basic box of Crayola crayons, favoring primary colors in particular.

It’s this sense of child-like simplicity, interestingly enough, that also makes this opera quite accessible to young children or ‘tweens, many of whom were in the audience this weekend and many more, no doubt, who attended the opera’s free simulcast with mom and dad at the Washington Nationals’ ballpark.

Making the opera even more accessible to all was the fact that it was performed in a sprightly English translation by WNO’s dramaturg, Kelly Rourke. She endeavored to keep things reasonably authentic with regard to the Mozart-Schikaneder original, but felt free to brush things up for 2014 audiences with a few pointed yet gently humorous allusions in the spoken text, particularly in the early innings.

An added plus: the English diction of all the performers generally rendered those still-important surtitles superfluous, save for a few hard-to-hear moments here and there.

Keeping the proceedings together was director Harry Silverstein who kept things light and airy while avoiding the kind of distracting stage business that can kill the mood of this opera.

WNO’s relatively youthful cast and chorus kept things lively and aloft, in spite of “Magic Flute’s” 3-hour plus running time.

Acting almost like a master of ceremonies for the audience, Joshua Hopkins’ Papageno serves as the perfect Everyman in this production. He’s willing to go along for the ride if there’s a chance he might snare a pretty bride, but isn’t much interested in jousting for higher stakes, particularly if he has to forego his endless chattering, a sumptuous meal, or both to achieve the higher realms of virtue.

Adding to his genial acting skills, Mr. Hopkins also boasts a beautifully articulated baritone range, both easy and enjoyable to hear again and again.

Plus, in what appeared to be a genuinely spontaneous surprise on opening night, Mr. Hopkins also displayed a spot-on talent for standup comedy. Near the end of the opera, Papageno, having flunked out of a series of “ordeals,” despairs of ever winning that longed-for bride and, in a soliloquy to the audience, contemplates suicide when a noose conveniently drops down from the rafters.

Just as Mr. Hopkins was deliberating his ultimate fate in a spoken monologue à la Hamlet, however, an opera fan lurking somewhere in the center-orchestra seats—perhaps a recent ejectee from La Scala—yelled out, “Do it!”

The audience seemed slightly shocked, not accustomed to this sort of outburst at an opera performance. Already center stage and facing the audience, Mr. Hopkins, too, seemed a bit nonplussed, but instinctively resorted to the kind of deadpan-face reaction patented by Jack Benny and perfected by Johnny Carson.

Laughter rippled through the Opera House and the proceedings resumed without a hitch. An opera singer with stand-up comedy instincts. Now there’s something to remember.

In the more serious role of Prince Tamino, tenor Joseph Kaiser played it straight, making the Tamino-Papageno pairing letter perfect in this production. Best of all, of course, was his solid, noble tenor and his confidence in the role, a part he’s sung to acclaim many times before.

Maureen McKay and her liquid-gold soprano voice proved a winning combination, combining to create a winsome and charming Pamina, Tamino’s initially confused intended. Ms. McKay carried the role with a kind of girlish elegance, seemingly unencumbered by her peculiar, stiff, reverse-conical dress which looked a bit like the kind of fashion Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen might endorse.

As Pamina’s nefarious mom, the ever-popular Queen of the Night, soprano Kathryn Lewek and her haughty, regal, yet liquid soprano voice re-created Mozart’s famous character as a drama queen with an almost Hollywood flair, an interpretation aided considerably by her sweeping gown and headdress. Better yet, after launching her signature second stanza showpiece “Vengeance of Hell” (“Der Holle Rache” in the original German), she nailed all those high-Fs as well after a touch of discomfort with the first one.

Appearing as the mysterious Sarastro was one of this critic’s personal favorites, current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Soloman Howard. The role demands steely control and great vocal authority, and Mr. Soloman had plenty of both to spare as we’ve been coming to expect from this marvelous bass. He reminds us, vocally, of famed Met bass Eric Owens, a singer whose early development we also enjoyed locally when he appeared with the Wolf Trap Opera back in the 1990s.

Smaller roles were generally good as well, including the Queen of the Night’s daffy assistants, Jacqueline Echols, Sarah Mesko and Deborah Nansteel, and pixy-esque soprano Ashley Emerson who created a sprightly Papagena, the girl of Papageno’s dreams.

Also surprisingly effective were the three youngsters—Will McKelvain, Jared Marshall and Arya Bailan—who appeared in the singing roles of Mozart’s three guiding spirits, spending most of their time moving too and fro in aethereal, triangular gondolas perched far above the stage. Their voices were quite good, although our opinion is mixed regarding the slight amplification that admittedly helped carry those voices farther into the auditorium than might otherwise have been the case.

But tenor John Easterlin, as Sarastro’s not-so-nice enforcer Monostatos, was frequently difficult to hear even in the orchestra seats in spite of creating an unusually madcap character in this often threatening role.

The company’s music director, Philippe Auguin, conducted the WNO Orchestra with warmth and precision, coaxing out an almost Romantic hue from his musicians, an effect that supported this antic production quite well.

Other nice touches: The very large funny animals in the opera’s first half were wonderfully creative evocations that seemed to combine the appearance of old-fashioned wooden toys with the antic attitudes of Mr. Kaneko’s sculptures (many of which appear in a concurrent exhibit on the Kennedy Center’s main floor); and (semi-spoiler alert) the incredibly lovable conjectural offspring of the birdman and his bride.

Mishaps on opening night were few. Most notable was the kind of unfortunate vocal accident that occasionally happens in a live performance. In this case, the glitch occurred in the opera’s second half when Ms. McKay seemed to encounter a brief vocal issue resulting in a flubbed entry.

After an uncomfortable pause and a few whispered exchanges, Mr. Augin rebooted the orchestra, Ms. McKay re-entered. The incident was soon forgotten, and the special magic of this marvelous production resumed, carrying the proceedings to a satisfying close. 

Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ stars out of 4)

WNO’s absolutely delightful production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through May 18. A second cast alternates with the opening night cast for some of these performances.

Tickets and information: Tickets range from $25-$350. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the WNO page here at the Kennedy Center’s website or call 800-444-1324.

Note: “Opera Insights”—free pre-opera lectures and interviews—take place in the Opera House an hour before each performance. Ticket holders are admitted free of charge.

Also note: A special performance of “Magic Flute,” featuring a mostly Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist cast, will be presented at the Opera House on May 16 at 7:30 p.m. Inexpensive tickets are still available.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17
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