"The Magic Flute," which almost always leaves the viewer amused or awed, but rarely both, returned to the Washington National Opera on Saturday night in an inventive and uneven production originally directed by the renowned Sir Peter Hall. His name still sits atop the roster of designers and directors, but it's hard to believe that this production, first seen in Los Angeles in 1993, has anything to do with Hall's original conception.
Stanley M. Garner is now given credit for the stage business that transpires in the wild costumes and amid the fantastical sets created by Gerald Scarfe, a cartoonist and designer whose work is familiar to readers of the New Yorker and the London Sunday Times. Visual artists have a special affinity for this opera, Mozart's last. In the past, it has attracted the ministrations of Marc Chagall and David Hockney, and more recently Julie Taymor (whose production can be seen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this season). The attractions are obvious: "Magic Flute" happens in a world of whimsy, governed by the laws of absurdity, limited only by the brooding presence of the inexplicably evil and the insufferably good. It is an opera filled with visual challenges, unearthly doings, crude romps, overt misogyny and racism, no small amount of pomp and grandeur, and the kind of plot twists that suggest Monty Python playing with the I Ching.
Rod Gilfry as the bird catcher Papageno in the Washington National Opera's colorful production of Mozart's "Magic Flute." He as well as Michael Schade, below left, as Tamino, and Andrea Rost, as Pamina, performed admirably.
Scarfe rises to the occasion -- this is a visually inventive production that pays playful homage to the Masonic ideas of the opera's libretto -- but there's something missing at the core. Perhaps it's ideas. Hall's trademark as a director is his unflinching sense of the provocations that lie at the heart of a work of drama. (His production of Strauss's "Salome," starring his former wife, Maria Ewing, included full-frontal nudity at the end of the erotic striptease of the Dance of the Seven Veils.) In Garner's hands, it's hard to tell if the opera is about anything more than a series of familiar chestnuts and gags, played out in the usual order, on sets that look very much like they have been gathering frequent-flier miles. Everything needs to be tightened, including the wheels on the cart that bear in the kingly priest figure of Sarastro. The lighting has odd moments of sloppiness, the three boys are way over-amplified (a huge no-no for opera purists), and the characterization of key singers needs sharpening.
That said, there are moments of dramatic and vocal charm throughout the show. This production centers on the four characters whose love and obedience are tested and rewarded by authoritarian father-figure Sarastro. Other productions have put the emphasis on the supernatural, or on the enlightenment ideals suggested by the symbolically supercharged libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. Some directors aim at a grandeur that feels like a rehearsal for Beethoven's Symphony No. 9; this production feels a bit like Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" set down in a wild world of visual exotica. It amuses rather than awes.
Vocally, the most fluent, expressive and commanding singing came from the relatively minor character of the Speaker, sung by bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen. He was an impressive Oroveso in Bellini's "Norma" two years ago, and his career -- in that exciting stage when a singer keeps adding new and more demanding roles to his résumé -- is growing spectacularly. He overshadowed the singer playing Sarastro (Kwangchul Youn), who is, presumably, the Speaker's boss. Youn, a bass, doesn't have the fullness of tone in the lowest reach of the voice to give Sarastro the full gravity of presence he needs. Worse, perhaps, he didn't seem to have a sense of himself as Sarastro, a figure that mixes all the archetypes of masculinity -- the father, the lawgiver, the warrior, the king, the priest -- into one commanding figure. This isn't a Sarastro who can make the heavens obey him, but a Sarastro of weak handshakes and uncertain bearing.
Perhaps this is to be laid at the feet of Garner, who, ultimately, might have inspired a stronger performance.
In the larger roles -- the prince Tamino and his bride-to-be Pamina, Papageno and his bride to be Papagena -- are a quartet of accomplished singers. As Tamino, Michael Schade has a light, pliant tenor voice well suited to Mozart, and he is an energetic, boyish stage presence. Soprano Andrea Rost has a bright, clear soprano with an easy top, and her second act "Ach, Ich fuhls" was perhaps the musical high point of the evening. Baritone Rod Gilfry's Papageno is as fully realized and confident as any to be seen onstage today. He makes the comic bird catcher into something like the stock lovable-lout figure on an American sitcom. But it works, and the singing is polished. As Papagena, Amanda Squitieri has a small role but left one wishing for more.
Unfortunately, soprano Amanda Pabyan's "Queen of the Night" was not a success. The tone is pleasingly bell-like and she has the coloratura speed. But there were missed notes and a sense that her thrilling signature aria wasn't fully in control. Heinz Fricke led the orchestra with sure pacing, sensitivity to the difficult singer-ensemble balance issues in this opera, and, alas, a surprising number of flubbed brass attacks. The chorus sounded magnificent in its role as Sarastro's minions.
"The Magic Flute" is almost indestructible. This production has the virtue of never getting in the way of the essentials: the music and the beloved sight gags. But it definitely reveals the dangers of production sharing, in which shows are designed to be serviceable to multiple opera companies, with little sense of tailoring them to the strengths of individual companies and the tastes (or needs) of local audiences. First seen in Los Angeles, this production has made the rounds, and it arrives in Washington unfocused. It will entertain most opera lovers. But it offers no clear answer to a set of questions that ought to be essential: What does the director think the opera is about? Why is the company doing this opera at this moment? And what does this traversal of an oft-traversed piece add to the history and meaning of the work? Just another chance to hear a great work? Well, Mozart deserves better.
"The Magic Flute" will be performed tonight, Wednesday, Saturday and April 12, 15 and 17.