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3.6.14

Second Opinion: WNO Magic Flute goes High School Musical

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center..

Photo (detail) courtesy Washington National Opera, © Scott Suchman


On May 7, 2014, I caught the third performance of The Magic Flute at the Kennedy Center Opera House in a production that is scheduled to run till May 18. It was vocally satisfying, but visually irritating.

The production design intruded already on the substantial overture: we were treated to projections of blue striations and what looked like microscopic fabric fibers that kept changing color tones and assuming geometric shapes. What had this to do with Mozart or The Magic Flute?


available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Die Zauberflöte,
R.Jacobs / AKAMUS
D.Behle, M.Peterson, D.Schmutzhard et al.
Harmonia Mundi



available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, The Magic Flute,
C.Mackerras / LPO
S.Keenlyside, J.Tomlinson et al.
Chandos

It turns out almost nothing. Projections of his crossing lines, bleeding colors, and geometric blocks came from paintings by Japanese-American production designer Jun Kaneko, made in response to Mozart’s music during more than three years of listening. In an interview with the Washington Post, Kaneko said, “I still consider myself a real amateur. I have no idea about opera, close to zero. …”

As reflected in this production, I’m afraid this is not false modesty. I’m not saying there was no relationship between the sets and the projections and the stage action—when Tamino and Pamina undergo their trial by fire, for instance, there was a projection of flickering flame, and when the praises of the sun were sung, there appeared a large yellow disc to simulate it—but these were the exceptions. Overall, there was no detectable correlation.

Charles' reviews [!] of this production of the Magic Flute can be read here: first performance, second performance, and final thoughts.


This reminded me of the John Cage ballet scores that were completely unconnected to and independent of Merce Cunningham’s choreography for them. The orchestra and dancers rehearsed separately and appeared together for the first time at the premiere performance. Consequently, the dancers’ movements had nothing to do with the music. The audience was left to make of these random juxtapositions what it could. There was no shared experience—except of disconnectedness. If this was the experience Kaneko was aiming at—which I doubt—then he achieved it. Perhaps I’m being too rough on the production, but the disconnectedness of the design constantly called attention to itself, and away from the action on stage or the music, which it purportedly should have been supporting.

Also, I don’t suppose there’s anything inherently wrong in transposing the setting of The Magic Flute from a mythical Egyptian/Masonic land to Japan, with kabuki masks and kimonos as makeup and costumes, so long as it reveals something about the opera that we might not otherwise have come to understand. But I think it largely failed in this respect also—though the formality and stylizations of kabuki theatre may help explain the inertness of almost all the scenes in Sarastro’s court.

The opera was also adapted by WNO dramaturg Kelley Rourke, whose translation aimed for such simplicity that it almost drained the lines of their drama. I realize that The Magic Flute is a Singspiel, not Shakespeare, but the translation dumbed-down the language to the level of a high school musical. On the other hand, to Rourke’s credit, she made the English eminently singable.

And it is to the singing that we shall now turn as it provided the principal enjoyment of the evening. Tenor Paul Appleby sang the role of Tamino well, but his acting lacked elan. Eri Nakamura is a petite, vivacious Japanese soprano with a big voice and accurate intonation. She invested the role of Pamina with spirit: The stage came alive whenever she was on it. She was able to overcome the stick figure characterizations of the libretto (especially when, understandably, shorn of most of the spoken dialogue). Baritone David Pershall was an appealing Papageno, and his reunion with Shantelle Przybylo as Papagena was the most popular event of the evening. Soprano Anna Siminska was adequate in her first act appearance as the Queen of the Night and rose to the coloratura challenges of her aria. In her second act appearance, she more completely filled role and delivered vocal brilliance.

Soloman Howard, who is still being billed as a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, sang the challenging base role of Sarastro. To his credit, he met the challenge but, perhaps in keeping with the direction of this production, his acting was close to expressionless. He also had to overcome the challenges of remaining inert most of his time on stage. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger gave the Speaker a convicing sense of presence and authority. The three Ladies—Jacqueline Eschols, Sarah Mesko, and Deborah Nansteel—were a lively presence and a vocal delight.

WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin supported the cast very well. It is unfortunate that so many of the projections fought against the well-played music.

This production was billed as certain to captivate “audiences of all ages.” I agree – from primary school on down. Still, there is the music, the singing and the occasional sense of fun that still made this worthwhile.

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