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1.8.06

Ionarts in Santa Fe: The Magic Flute

Natalie Dessay as Pamina and Toby Spence as Tamino, 'Tamino mein', The Magic Flute, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Natalie Dessay as Pamina and Toby Spence as Tamino, 'Tamino mein', The Magic Flute, Santa Fe Opera,
photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Earlier today, Jens reviewed an excellent new recording of The Magic Flute, one that I have been listening to as well lately. It is an opera that we find ourselves writing about frequently at Ionarts, and it is one that is near and dear to my heart. So here we are again, with Mozart's masterful Singspiel in a production at Santa Fe Opera. Normally, I am happy to have the chance to hear it, but this summer I was particularly thrilled because it featured French soprano Natalie Dessay. Having recovered from devastating vocal problems in recent years, including operations on her throat, Dessay has returned to the stage in excellent voice, singing a Juliette at the Met and now taking on her first Pamina in Santa Fe. German is not her best language and this may not become a signature role, but she made a fragile, tender, ravishing, and well-acted Pamina. Ach, ich fühl's was full of pain, but not weepy, and the voice still has the power to transport me. Singing across from her, Toby Spence as Tamino was right to collapse at the thought of losing her.

As for the rest of the cast, it was a very satisfying evening. Toby Spence was a dashing and vocally robust Tamino, even when he made his first entrance while supine in the mouth of a mechanical serpent. In Dies Bildnis, his tone was heroic but not overbearing, and his strong acting really gave the impression of the thunderbolt that hits him from seeing that picture of Pamina. Heather Buck's Queen of the Night was all icy venom, with impressive accuracy in her two infamous and stratospheric arias. There were a few issues of flexibility in the first act aria, and shifting from middle to high register sometimes involved a less than smooth difference in volume. As Papageno, Joshua Hopkins found a good combination of dolt and good heart. He is not to be blamed for the poor decision to have Papageno whistle instead of playing the little woodflute specifically indicated in the libretto ("In der Hand hat er eine kleine Waldflöte").

Natalie Dessay as Pamina and Heather Buck as the Queen of the Night, The Magic Flute, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Natalie Dessay as Pamina and Heather Buck as the Queen of the Night, The Magic Flute, Santa Fe Opera,
photo by Ken Howard © 2006
In fact, the libretto appears to have been the least important authority for this production (more about that in the next paragraph), as the magic flute was made of metal when the libretto has Pamina describe it as made of oak ("Mein Vater sie aus tiefstem Grunde / Der tausendjähr'gen Eiche aus"). The gigantic Andrea Silvestrelli had the most resonant voice on the stage as Sarastro, with rumbling low notes where he needed them. The three ladies have some of the best music in the opera, in my opinion, and Sarah Gartshore, Paul Murrihy, and Lucia Cervoni were a well-matched trio who sang and acted well. The three child singers who sang as the three boys were sometimes hard to hear but did a fine job for their age. The orchestra played very well, with excellent performances from the principal flutist and whoever played the Glockenspiel part. Conductor William Lacey sometimes seemed at odds with singers and musicians, and I was not always convinced by his musical choices.

Where this production failed, however, was in the prosaic and bizarre staging directed by Tim Albery, with sets and costumes by Tobias Hoheisel. The set was promising at the outset, with two walls of what looked like Frank Gehry's trademarked brushed titanium, matching the floor, opening to the famous vista of the Jeméz Mountains. It was a stark, almost monastic setting appropriate to Sarastro's temple, with colorful birds at the ends of poles. The mood was spoiled almost immediately as Papageno, during his first aria, "caught" his birds by plucking the stuffed creatures off their poles. I love challenging and even strange productions when they are guided by the score and libretto, but here the basic concept seemed to be to throw incongruent costumes on the singers and mix them together.

David Cangelosi as Monostatos, Joshua Hopkins as Papageno, Natalie Dessay as Pamina, and Chorus, The Magic Flute, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
David Cangelosi as Monostatos, Joshua Hopkins as Papageno, Natalie Dessay as Pamina, and Chorus, The Magic Flute, Santa Fe Opera,
photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Perhaps someone out there can make sense of costuming Sarastro and his followers in 18th-century Viennese clothing, Monostatos and his henchmen as Nazi soldiers (probably only for the joke of having them dance away when Papageno plays his Glockenspiel, a moment right out of Springtime for Hitler), the Queen of the Night and the Ladies as Elizabethan noblewomen (Heather Buck's costume was cribbed directly from that for Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, complete with white face powder), Papageno as the ugly American tourist (he wears a bright baseball cap, Santa Fe Opera T-shirt, and yellow shoes and eats McDonald's), Tamino as a Renaissance prince with a T-shirt under his fake chest plate, and Pamina as a 50s Annette Funicello who later runs around in her nightgown. It gave me the impression that with every scene change someone had flipped the channel to the next late night television rerun. Then, in my dreams, all those old war and history movies and terrible sitcoms had run together. Perhaps the creative team should have read the libretto.

Other listeners were troubled by the English adaptation of the German dialogue, an option that makes perfect sense given the nature of the Singspiel as something for people to understand in their native language. I could have done without the little rhymed couplets, approaching doggerel, that concluded major scenes, and the incongruous collection of accents (Italian Sarastro, French Pamina, British Tamino, and so on) caused some laughter. What was lost in the glib English dialogue and the motley miscellany of the staging was the fairy tale beauty of Mozart's opera. The only thing that saved it was due to lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, who bathed the set in golden light whenever a didactic statement occurred in the libretto (found after the lock is put on Papageno's lips to keep him from lying, when the magic flute is described as bringing joy to the world, when the Glockenspiel makes Monostatos dance, when love is extolled in the second act). These moments of enlightenment, when Mozart and Schikaneder are trying to teach you something, were underscored by Ingmar Bergman's film version of the opera by the singers holding up the words on scrolls or signs. It was nice to know that someone on the Santa Fe production team had read the libretto.

Performances of The Magic Flute continue throughout August. Be aware that Susanna Phillips will replace Natalie Dessay in the role of Pamina on August 22 and 25.

3 comments:

jfl said...

"The three child singers who sang as the three boys were sometimes hard to hear but did a fine job for their age."

I suppose that, if they were not their age, they would also not be child singers, ey? :)

giacmc said...

I became aware that Susanna Phillips would be singing Pamina in Santa Fe when a friend gmailed me that he was flying out from D. C. to hear her--and that musicians he knew all over the country (he's a wellregarded Anglocatholic Choirmaster)were doing the same.

Charles T. Downey said...

Giacmc, to clarify: my final sentence here contains no tone of regret, only that Phillips would replace Dessay in the final two performances. There should be no chip on anyone's shoulder.