News Column

Opera review: Opera Theatre's 'Magic Flute' is more about dance than singing

May 25, 2014

By Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch



May 25--Many operas are anchored in a particular time and place, in a particular set of mores and social expectations, and suffer if they're placed in a different setting.

Not "The Magic Flute," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's penultimate opera. Although heavily layered in symbolism, its fairy-tale structure allows the piece to work in many different styles and periods, from the traditional to the updated. While "Flute" can be a difficult opera to stage, it opens the door to directors' imaginations.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis' new production, directed and designed by Isaac Mizrahi, is aimed at denizens of a visual age. Unfortunately, it opens that door a little too widely.

In a note on the production, Mizrahi writes that his concept was to make the opera "a dance event," in the "jazz-ballet" style of 1950s Hollywood. That means that dance dominates in an opera that has become an homage to a particular cinematic period, sometimes to the detriment of the music.

The set is a drab Hollywood soundstage, with a catwalk, rolling rear door, and set elements that go on and offstage with the help of stagehands. Tamino is dressed like Gene Kelly in the dream ballet sequence of "An American in Paris." The Queen of Night is a Garboesque figure in a turban and dark glasses, stalking the catwalk and radiating fury. The priests of the Temple are Shriners, each clad in a red fez and blazer, gray slacks and saddle shoes.

Mizrahi's concept has some great moments. For her first-act aria, the Queen emerges from below with a sparkling train that stretches for yards, to terrific effect. When the priests sing to Isis and Osiris, it's to a pair of golden statues who sometimes dance (and sometimes play solitaire). The little Papagenii at opera's end took on a new and humorous shape.

Mizrahi's revised libretto, written with Susan Bernofsky, managed to eliminate most of the sexism and all of the racism in the original. Awkward transitions still remain. The evil Monostatos, in this rendition, is simply misunderstood, a startling revision. (He also sang his Act II aria in Act I.)

The cast, while capable, often seems to have been chosen primarily for looks, rather than abilities; some dancers were excellent, but others were mediocre. Talented singing actors are given relatively little to do, and the focus is stolen from beautiful arias by dance doubles gyrating nearby. Choreographer John Heginbotham's well of inspiration proved shallow.

At Saturday night's opening, tenor Sean Panikkar as Prince Tamino provided both the look that Mizrahi wanted and the singing the role demands. Panikkar has grown considerably as an actor and a tenor since his 2009 OTSL debut in "The Ghosts of Versailles."

The Three Ladies -- Raquel GonzÁlez, Summer Hassan and Corrie Stallings -- were an unmitigated delight, a zaftig trio with rich voices that blended beautifully, along with attitude to spare. Baritone Levi Hernandez, in a black tailcoat with very long tails and feathered trousers, was a satisfying Everyman, with a solid voice and good humor.

Soprano Elizabeth Zharoff's Pamina was well sung and affectingly acted. As the Queen of Night, soprano Claire de SÉvignÉ looked great and smoldered effectively, but on Saturday night none of the money notes in her second-act aria were hit squarely.

Bass Michael Anchel possesses a fine voice, but was miscast as Sarastro, apparently representing a Hollywood producer in this production. The supporting characters all did well, including the cleverly dressed Three Spirits: Emily Tweedy, Gillian Lynn Cotter and Fleur Barron. The chorus was exceptionally good.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Jane Glover, played splendidly despite a few moments of disconnect between stage and pit.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Mozart's "The Magic Flute"

When -- May 28 through June 28

Where -- Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road (at Big Bend)

How much -- $25-$134

Info -- 314-961-0644; opera-stl.org

Sarah Bryan Miller is the Post-Dispatch's classical music critic. Follow Bryan on the Culture Club blog, and on Twitter at @SBMillerMusic.

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Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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