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Virginia Opera's 'Magic Flute'

The libretto of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte is not about realism. Ways to make sense of it include playing up the Masonic elements that are part of the backdrop of the opera's creation, relocating the story in a completely different era, exaggerating the fairy tale aspects, using marionettes to enhance the surreal nature of the events, making the story even more confusing, or dispensing with reality altogether. The production that Michael Shell directed for Virginia Opera, seen on Friday night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, is essentially a traditional staging, albeit in an English adaptation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey. Shell recontextualizes the story by setting it as a dream, shared by a husband and wife who have fallen asleep after a fight. The unbelievable -- the Egyptian temple, the unlikely love story, the diametrically opposed forces of good and evil, the magic instruments -- is made oneiric. The husband, who somehow becomes Tamino in his dream, is not falling in love with the portrait of his wife, who becomes Pamina -- he is rediscovering what made him fall in love with her in the first place. In this context, the libretto's moral lessons, compact dicta against lying and hurting others, seem like valuable marital advice.

The conceit works in large part because of the convincing acting and fine singing of both singers: tenor Matthew Plenk as an ardent Tamino, and particularly the robust, not weepy Pamina of Nadine Sierra. The two foils of male and female in the libretto were also served beautifully, in the daring but refined, not overblown coloratura of Heather Buck as the Queen of the Night (pictured, see interview) and the smooth, not dragging Sarastro of bass Kenneth Kellogg. In Shell's retooling of the story, the foibles of both of these characters, the conniving queen and the misogynistic Sarastro, can be seen as the shortcomings behind the argument of the dreaming husband and wife. Baritone David Pershall, a former emerging artist with Virginia Opera, was a charming, if not extraordinary Papageno, matched by the goofy Papagena of Amanda Opuszynski, a current emerging artist. The three ladies, quizzically recast as a sort of Andrews Sisters backup trio, were also sung by current and former emerging artists, effective but not optimal.

Other Reviews:

Robert R. Reilly, Virginia 'Magic Flute' Living up to Mozart (Ionarts, December 9)

Grace Jean, Virginia Opera’s whimsical but faithful ‘Magic Flute’ (Washington Post, December 9)

Roy Proctor, Music, not story, remains true treat of ‘Magic Flute’ (Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 24)
The only real misstep in the casting was the decision to have the three boys sung by three women, who gave not much of an improvement in vocal tone and none of the innocent charm of trebles. Additionally, Shell missed a possible resonance in his frame narrative. The husband and wife could have been shown wrestling their three young sons into bed, which could have contributed to the strife at home, three boys who become, in the dream, the force that brings the couple back together. In practical terms, though, it was likely too difficult to find three boys who could both sing the parts and commit to such a long run, in three different venues all over Virginia.

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra has sounded better in the pit than they did at this performance, which although there were no major gaffes was less than polished. Part of this seemed to be due to the occasionally mushy beat of conductor Mark Russell Smith, former music director of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. (My favorite recording of the work remains the recent one by René Jacobs.) Shell made the most of a hodgepodge of sets and costumes (from Nashville Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Sarasota Opera) to piece together his staging, with an absolutely beautiful scene set for the Queen of the Night's first aria (pictured above -- see more photos of the production here). This was the first Magic Flute for Miss Ionarts, who is more of a ballet maven, and that scene, as well as Buck's flame-like costume in the second act, was the stuff of which dreams are made.

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