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On September 30, 1791, in a theater on the outskirts of Vienna, with only weeks remaining in his life, Mozart first presented to the world The Magic Flute. Despite the great expense that went into that premiere, it was only a moderate success, and it was greeted with derision in many circles. Since that time it has become one of the most popular operas and is often used as a sure-fire money-maker in many opera companies. Its seemingly bottomless well of musical ideas has also served as inspiration for the basis of many compositions by others as well as arrangements of themes that are miraculous in their simplicity and beauty.
The Piedmont Opera Theater presented this perennial favorite at the NCSA's Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. I attended the April 12 performance following the Friday and Sunday shows. Even on a Tuesday night the theater was probably 90% filled, demonstrating the continuing public appeal of this masterpiece. Down in the very deep pit, accompanying the action on stage, were members of the Winston-Salem Symphony, conducted by James Meena. Having only been there one other time many years ago, I was struck by the beauty and majesty of the Stevens Center. This was an especially appropriate venue for this operatic mix of magic, spirituality, and plain-old physical love.
The set was very simple but quite effective. A central stage with a rather steep angle towards the audience was surrounded by what looked like to be rock formations and high panels behind them. This unchanging set, while appearing to be a minimalist approach, served its purpose well, especially when very creative lighting and a few stage props were added. In any case, while elaborate scenery can certainly add some flair to an excellent musical performance, it can never save otherwise sub-par singing, acting, and playing.
The Overture to The Magic Flute, even without the rest of the opera, stands on its own as a crowning example of Mozart's genius and a challenge for any orchestra. The opening slow, somber chords signal a recurring theme of the opera, almost foreshadowing Wagner's use of musical motifs fixed to specific characters or ideas. Following those chords, the Overture takes off with very fast, fugal passages. The musicians in the pit had a bit of trouble with intonation and finding the groove of the rhythm at the start but soon settled into a spirited and well-played introduction to the action. (I just committed one of the pitfalls of playing in the pit – groan; bad pun! – by illustrating the thankless job of these musicians. I know, having been there many times. You are noticed when something goes wrong, but otherwise you are a subterranean creature, supporting the prima donnas on stage.)
The libretto, by Emanuel Schikaneder, is often spoken of as a mixture of the sacred and profane plus a bit of the just plain silly. There is no need to go into the details of the story here except to say that it is my belief that the profane and silly is what really makes this opera one of the all-time favorites. Despite the Masonic undertones of Sarastro and his disciples – they remind me of the Stonecutter episode of The Simpsons – the real star of this opera is Papageno, and no production will succeed without a singer who has great pipes and believable comic sensibility and who creates an immediate rapport with the audience. Frank Hernandez fit the bill and carried the show. He has a pure, clear baritone voice and a natural stage presence, and he became the part. Tamino was played by Don Frazure, who has a classic and beautiful tenor voice although as an actor he seemed a bit stiff.
Much of the beginning of the opera is taken up with a trio of ladies from the kingdom of the Queen of the Night. This may be my bias, but the inordinately wide vibrato of all three singers made it an aural trainwreck to my ears, especially in their high, screeching trios. Jan Grissom, as the Queen of the Night, was of somewhat the same quality, although her famous aria in the second act brought down the house. In contrast, Margaret Lloyd, as Pamina, was like a breath of natural, fresh air. Her beautiful soprano voice had simplicity, innocence, and sweetness that were especially appropriate to her role. She displayed character, not just decibels.
At the opposite end of the vocal spectrum, Mikhail Svetlov, as Sarastro, has low notes that were almost out of the range of human hearing.
This production was in English but the text was still presented in supertitles high above the stage. After a while this seemed superfluous as everyone spoke the lines and sang with exceptional enunciation and clarity. For the most part, the staging flowed well, and the occasional effects used to advance the story worked well, too. As always, the music is what this is all about. This was a production at the highest professional level.
Note: Magic Flute was co-produced with Opera Carolina and will be performed in Charlotte 5/19-21 – see our Western calendar for details.