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'Magic Flute' at Washington National Opera

(L to R) Corey Evan Rotz (Second Priest), Wei Wu (Second Armored Man), Soloman Howard (Sarastro), Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Maureen McKay (Pamina), David Pittsinger (Speaker), Yi Li (First Armored Man), and James Shaffran (First Priest)
in The Magic Flute, Washington National Opera, 2014 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Every couple years, we seem to review a new production of Die Zauberflöte, Mozart's fairy-tale Singspiel. Directors who embrace the imaginary qualities of this opera, rather than trying to deconstruct it, are most successful, and that can happen in both traditional stagings, closer to how the libretto situates the action, and in those that shift the story into a new time setting or other context. Jun Kaneko's designs for the new production at Washington National Opera, which opened on Saturday evening, are fairy-tale fanciful, although it is hard to say what their colorful abstract designs, like a Sol LeWitt painting set in motion, add to the telling of the story. This is the fundamental problem of this production, as pretty as it is, that the acting and stage direction, by Harry Silverstein, have little to do with the set and costume design, as if Kaneko just sprayed neon graffiti all over something. Add to that the new English adaptation, a very free non-translation by WNO dramaturg Kelley Rourke, and you have a real mess.

Musically this production is in good hands, those of WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin, who was efficient and occasionally brilliant on both of the run's first two performances on Saturday and Monday evening. He is assured and clear in his gestures, so all the Masonic triple knocks in the overture were clean, and his choice of a not overly fast tempo for the Allegro section ensured that all the woodwind runs were crisp and articulated. Many times the unanticipated tempo caprices of singers could have caused problems, but Auguin was able to right them all quickly, often in a way likely to go unperceived by most listeners.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Washington National Opera offers ‘The Magic Flute’ in a color-saturated production (Washington Post, May 5)

---, ‘Magic Flute’ winds up Jun Kaneko’s (intense, nonstop, decade-long) jaunt into opera (Washington Post, May 2)

Charles T. Downey, Washington National Opera’s ‘Magic Flute’ features strong opening and alternative casts (Washington Post, May 7)

Elvin Canales, The audience of the future responds to “The Magic Flute” (Washington Post, May 3)

Virginia Opera (2013)
Kenneth Branagh (2013)
Santa Fe Opera (2010, 2006)
René Jacobs (2010)
Pierre Audi (2007)
Salzburg Marionnettes (2005)
The casting for this production -- a long run with alternating singers for many roles -- is light on star power. The singing was generally good, especially in the first cast, but some patrons may wonder why they are paying ticket prices approaching those of the Metropolitan Opera and not getting René Pape or Diana Damrau for their money. Instead, as Sarastro there was Soloman Howard, who is still being billed as a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, and he filled out the role nicely, especially at the top of his voice, which grows in authority each time I hear him. As the Queen of the Night, there is Kathryn Lewek, who won big at last year's Operalia Competition and is singing this role in many places. She certainly put everything out there vocally, almost spitting in rage, getting all the high notes but in a way that was more venomous than anything else -- exciting, to be sure. Both of these younger singers sang on both of the first performances (for my full thoughts on the second cast, see today's review in the Washington Post).

The first cast was strongest in the pairing of the noble lovers. Joseph Kaiser was an ardent and heroic Tamino, matched by the powerful and limpid soprano of Maureen McKay, whose rising career we have been following at Wolf Trap and elsewhere, as Pamina. (Another instance of the level-headedness of Philippe Auguin was in an ensemble when McKay had something get caught in her throat in Act II opening night. Rather than press ahead, Auguin halted the piece immediately, waiting for his singer to give the go-ahead, and then restarted.) In the supporting cast, David Pittsinger was exceptional as the Speaker, and the three ladies, made up of current and former young artists, did well, with the reservation that Jacqueline Echols was not always present and on pitch at the top of the trio. Ashley Emerson was a spirited Papagena, although the staging of the duet with Papageno, featuring six munchkins in adorable chick costumes as the couple's children, drew attention away from that charming piece.

After watching the staging twice, Kaneko's psychedelic designs -- videos projected on backdrop screens, complemented by costumes of geometric shapes with overtones of Japanese theater -- started to grate on me. (At least when Francesca Zambello gets around to doing The Mikado in her musical/operetta slot, she is set for costumes.) It is busy and colorful, which will appeal to children, as it did to Miss Ionarts, who was my companion at opening night, but in the long run, the entertainment about which one agrees with a ten-year-old is generally limited. It should hardly be a surprise that ultimately the design ideas seemed to have nothing to do with the story or the music: as Kaneko told Anne Midgette in an interview, he is "not an opera fan," and has "no idea about opera, close to zero. . . . Just because I started to design the opera didn't really increase my curiosity for opera that much." Rourke's English adaptation also went too far in changing the nature of the work -- all the Egyptian references removed, the uncomfortable sides of the Masonic ideal smoothed over, replacing 18th-century jokes with only moderately funny 21st-century ones. I am not opposed to the use of an English translation, especially for a work like a Singspiel, but to distort the work to this degree goes beyond translation. Ultimately, it all felt like one had seen these ideas before, as there were many similarities to Julie Taymor's production of the opera for the Metropolitan Opera (checkerboard patterns, geometric shapes, Japanese overtones, pop culture lines in English). Most people will enjoy it, especially children and other people who are easily distracted, but it is not the best way to stage this opera.

This production runs through May 18.

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