News Column

Mozart in love [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

November 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Magic Flute," which was first performed in 1791 a few months before the composer died, is a sublime mix of comedy and seriousness. For many people, it is their favorite opera, or among the handful of their favorites.

Pittsburgh Opera will present "The Magic Flute," in a production created by Diane Paulus for Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, starting Nov. 9 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

The story involves two couples. Tamino has wandered into a land he doesn't know and falls in love with Pamina, who shares his feelings. She is the daughter of Sarastro, the leader of a religious order. The other couple is Papageno, a bird catcher who supplies much of the comedy, and Papagena; they also will be married.

"Our concept is a play within a play," stage director Jenn Nicoll says. The action begins during the overture, when the curtain is usually closed, and shows a birthday celebration, with the opera that follows as part of the festivities.

"We set it in 1791, the year in which the opera was originally written. Sarastro, a land owner of a large estate, is throwing a naming day, or birthday, party for his daughter Pamina, with his ex- wife, the Queen of the Night, in attendance."

The Queen of the Night is fiercely opposed to Sarastro.

Nicoll adds that the staging concept is a way to deal with dated elements in the story, "such as the old-fashioned idea women should be submissive to men."

Canadian soprano Layla Claire, who's adored Mozart's operas since she was a child, likes the play-within-a-play concept, but then, she's singing Pamina and the opera is her birthday party.

"It's very interesting. It sort of helps with a lot of confusing aspects, with Masonic things, and makes it all a fantasy. The Queen of the Night and Sarastro, her parents, are present at the beginning. She doesn't realize her mother is an evil character, but she discovers it. It also gives us an opportunity to experience a coming-of-age story, going through adolescence realizing our parents aren't perfect."

Sarastro's religious order uses many of the symbols and rituals of Freemasons in Vienna in the 1700s. Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, along with many of Vienna's intellectual and artistic elite, were members of Masonic lodges.

"One of the most wonderful things about conducting Mozart operas, particularly late ones, is that he tries to embrace a wide spectrum of human emotions and situations," music director Antony Walker says. "That's why he rejected writing comic or serious opera, which makes him quite a pioneer at that time. Some people like to think of 'The Magic Flute' as a Masonic opera with comic overtones. I must say, this production reflects the other view, that it is a comic opera with serious overtones to it. It's quite fast-paced and very funny, very human and very earthy."

Re-reading letters Mozart wrote while composing the opera increased Walker's sensitivity to one of its aspects.

"Because (his wife) Constanze was away at a spa keeping herself healthy while pregnant, they missed each other enormously," Walker says. "Everywhere I look now in the score I find the most poignant references to loved ones, even from the time Tamino first looks at Pamina's face in the portrait. It's such a beautiful song, one can't help but think Mozart was thinking of Constanze being far away and missing her."

"The Magic Flute," unlike "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni," features a tenor among the primary roles.

Sean Panikkar says the play-within-a-play concept gives more freedom in characterization for his role of Tamino, who is given a magic flute to ensure a safe journey.

"Mozart looks a lot easier on paper than it is," he says. "A lot of music schools give Mozart roles because they don't go too high. But when you're a young singer, you don't really know what you're doing. From a technical perspective, they sit in an uncomfortable place in the tenor range, and if you don't know what you're doing, tension creeps into your voice and all sorts of problems start to arise."

Audrey Luna returns to Pittsburgh Opera to sing the Queen of the Night again. She made her local debut with this role in 2006 while a resident artist, sang it at her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and, by now, has performed it in 15 productions and more than 80 performances.

Many sopranos fear the Queen of the Night role, which includes repeated very high notes -- Fs above high C. Even Beverly Sills, who had great coloratura and a solid high F sharp when she sang Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'Or," hated singing this role.

"You can't avoid the adrenaline, but I don't get nervous or scared," Luna says. "Literally, as soon as I step on stage, I know what is required of my body and my breath and my body clicks into 'go mode.' "

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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