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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review: Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)

A CurtainUp  Berkshire ReviewDie Zauberflöte(The Magic Flute)

Background Information and Plot Synopsis
Production Notes

With musical theater becoming increasingly operatic, it's small wonder that more and more musical theater fans are eager to venture into the opera world. Opera newbies couldn't cut their teeth on anything better than Mozart's The Magic Flute. Its broad comedy and combination of spoken dialogue and singing puts into the genre of singspiel rather than grand opera. Yet it is grand in every other sense of the word -- an unbeatable musical experience, from its fairy-tale story with giant serpents to its gorgeous score of lyrical arias, duets, trios and choral singing .

As with other theatrical classics operas often undergo drastic revisions and The Magic Flute is no exception. It's been compressed into an hour for the pre-school set. Last year a German director named Herbert Wernicke conceived a one-man version which played briefly at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall (see our opera critic David Lipfert's review). Earlier this season at the Santa Fe Opera the English director Jonathan Miller decided to strip The Magic Flute of its origins as a work written for a vaudeville theater by setting it in a very proper hotel shortly after World War I. The fantastical serpent who chases Tamino during the opening scene disappeared into a nightmare unseen by the audience. Equally invisible were Tamino's later trials . I'll spare you further details of what one opera friend described as "The Magic Flute minus the magic" but will fast forward to the filled with magic production by the Berkshire Opera Company.

While the company's bow towards musical theater might cause some tongue clicking among purists, most of the choices made for this production work well for this opera and this human-scaled theater. I think if Mozart were alive he would approve (in fact, I'm reasonably certain that he would, like Leonard Bernstein have dipped his toes into the world of musical theater).

The company's move to opera in its original language marks its increasing maturity. The super titles by stage director Matthew Lata, while somewhat over-abridged by the rather small overhead screen, are on a par with foreign language film titles and provide enough text to keep track of the complications that propel the plot. (You'll also find an excellent summary in the program, as well as our own synopsis at the end of this review). No doubt the physical problems, which at the opening performance I attended included a brief blackout at the start of the second act, will resolve themselves in subsequent performances.

Thanks to a rental arrangement with the Virginia Opera Company the sets are first-rate, complete with a handsome turquoise proscenium arch and several painted scrims. The effectiveness of the latter is apparent immediately, when an imaginary Pamina flashes into view during Tamino's "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schoen" aria. The costumes (also rented) add to the visual pleasures, as does Eric Cornwell's mood-appropriate lighting.

Fortunately, this production is a full-featured feast and the strong elements are matched by a cast in which the performer have the vocal skills to do credit to Mozart's varied score. Soprano Sari Gruber who previously charmed Berkshire Opera audiences in The Marriage of Figaro (see link) once more proves herself to be a Mozart singer and character interpreter par excellence. As her mother and the villainess without which no fairy tale is worthy of the name, Lorraine Ernest navigates her coloratura trills with virtuoso ease. While tenor Matthew Chellis is an appealingly romantic Tamino and bass Randall Jakobsch brings the right aura of authority to the role of the high priest Sarastro, the standout in the leading men department is baritone Christopheren Nomura. Besides impeccable singing, he brings great comic flair to the whimsically befeathered Papageno.

Much of the fun stuff adding to the blend of opera/musical theater experience centers on Papageno's antics. For example, during Act II, in the increasingly popular tradition of crumbling the fourth wall said to stand between audience and actors, this Papageno darts down the aisles and at the end he and his Papagena (Adele Paxton) share the spotlight with a cute instant family of Papagenas. (This is a fairy tale . . . so why not?).

Also great fun are the three boys floating onto the stage in a balloon and in this case ladies (Jayne West, D'Anna Fortunato Elizabeth Turnbull); also the orchestra, taking advantage of the pit being within hand reach of the actors, getting into the act by passing an occasional prop to the performers and at one point participating with a one-word group solo of " Zurück". To further enhance the intimacy of the production the excellent Fuma Sacra Chamber Chorus at one point shows up in the narrow balcony spaces at either side of the theater which works extremely well from an acoustical standpoint.

With all the fun elements and the Lion King (link) reminiscent animal touches, should you bring kids to this production? Because the titles require a certain reading sophistication and because the performance, despite judicious trimming, runs three hours, I'd say yes, if the kid you're bringing is at least ten and somewhat musically sophisticated. Otherwise, check out the Ingmar Bergman video in the bookstore link below.

Previously Reviewed Operas From this Company
Also Mentioned and of Interest Bookstore
  • Mozart's Magic Fantasy: The Magic Flute (excerpts) This inexpensive audio CD is one of Amazon's top 50 for kids (ages 4 and up). The baker's dozen of musical numbers includes: O Help Me. . .The Best Birdcatcher. . .You Must Journey. . .Pamina, A Girlfriend. . . O Endless Night. . .. O Listen, Hear The Song. . . Let Us Hurry, What Tinkles So Brightly. . . The Gods Above. . .The. Powers Of Night. . .Oh My Heart Is Broken. . . O Seekers, Tamino Mine, My Power Is Shattered. . . Ring, O Bells, Papageno. . .Our Journey Is Over

  • Video of The Magic Flute made by no less than the great director Ingmar Bergman is essentially a filmed opera, with closeups of young audience members and some intriguing backstage stuff
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Production Notes
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Emmanuel Schikaneder
Fully staged and performed in German
Stage Direction and Super Titles: Matthew Lata
Camerata New York Orchestra conducted by Joel Revzen
Chorus: Fuma Sacra Chamber Chorus
Ensemble-in-Residence at Westminster Choir College
Sets courtesy of Virginia Opera and Tally Display Corporation
Costumes supplied by A. T. Jones & Sons
Wigs from the Julliard Wig Shop (NYC)
Lights: Eric Cornwell

Tamino: Matthew Chellis
1st Lady: Jayne West
2nd Lady: D'Anna Fortunato
3rd Lady:Elizabeth Turnbull
Papageno: Christopheren Nomura
Queen of the Night: Lorraine Ernest
Monostatos: Joel Sorensen
Pamina: Sari Gruber
First Genii: Irina Mozyleva
Second Genii: Karen Lubeck
Third Genii: Misa Ann Iwama
Sarastro: Randall Jacobs
Papagena:Adele Paxton
First Priest: Daniel Cucura
Second Priest: Pawel Izdebski
First Man in Armour: Rod Briscoe
SecondMan in Armour: Brian Dougherty

Berkshire Opera Company
Koussevitzky Arts Center, Berkshire Community College
Pittsfield, MA (413/528-4420)
August 22, 27, 29 September 3 and 5 at 8 pm
August 24 and 31 at 2 pm
Reviewed 8/24/98 by Elyse Sommer
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Background and Plot Synopsis
The Magic Flute: Background and Synopsis
  • Mozart wrote the opera for a vaudevillian theatre.
  • The overture and several arias were written just days before the first production at t the Theater auf der Weiden, Vienna, on September 30, 1791.
  • Though it is one of the most produced of all operas (outperforming all others in Germany) it did not make its way to New York until 1833.
  • The term Singspiel ( spiel=play) derives from the fact that the arias are interspersed with spoken dialogue instead of sung recitative (what musical theater buffs today call "sung through")..
  • The Magic Flute's enduring popularity derives from its mindboggling variety of music (including such favorits as "Der Vogelfanger bin ich Ja", "Dies Bildnis", "Ach, ich Fuhls"; "Der Holle Rache").
  • The great Beethoven was one of the Flute's greatest fans, not only because of its music but because of its lofty Masonic sentiments.
    The Story In a Nutshell
    Tamino, a young prince, slays a dragon, meet a trio of women and through them the Queen of the Night. The Queen enlists his aid to rescue her daughter, the beautiful Paminafrom her allegedly evil father, Sarastro. Having fallen in love with a portrait of Palmina Tamino and Papageno, a bird-catcher, set out to rescue her. They are armed against mortal danger with a magic flute and a set of bells . When they are captured by Sarastro, he decress that Tamino and Pamina can wed, but only after Tamino has passed through a series of initiations (the opera has strong links to Masonic ritual). To complicate and delay the happy ending, the thwartedQueen plots to destroy the temple, but is foiled by the rising sun.

    This being a fairy tale opera, all's well that ends well. Tamino and Pamina are happily united and Papageno finds love with a bird-woman of his own. All the followers of wisdom, including the triumphant lovers, praise and thank Osiris and Isis. "The strong have won and as reward, are crowned with everlasting crowns of beauty and wisdom."
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