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This 'Flute' Finds Its Magic

Apprentice Artists Show Their Appeal to a New Generation

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page C05

Blame the luscious spring weather for the fact that the Washington National Opera's production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" played to a less-than-full house Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center. It took considerable force of will to venture indoors on this blooming, buzzing day; still, those who made the sacrifice were rewarded by a happy, youthful performance of Mozart's last and strangest opera.

"The Magic Flute" is both supremely silly fairy tale and majestic, mysterious religious allegory, set to music of a ripe, sun-splashed splendor. Nobody really understands it (I am always reminded of Wallace Stevens's dictum that a poem "must resist the intelligence almost successfully") but few can watch and listen unmoved. The strengths and weaknesses of this particular production -- owned by the Los Angeles Opera and directed by Stanley M. Garner, after the original staging by Peter Hall -- have already been discussed in these pages, but this final performance was given over to what is now called the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and permitted some gifted apprentice singers to show what they could do.

Not surprisingly, Jessica Swink, in the lyric soprano role of Pamina, ran off with the honors. Swink, a Washington native, is showing signs of turning into the capital city's greatest gift to opera since Denyce Graves. Her portrayal of Sister Blanche was one of the best things about Opera International's production of Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" last summer, and she recently took the tiny role of Essy Baker in Scott Wheeler's "Democracy" and made it into something memorable. Her voice is fresh, firm and sweet; she is a deft, funny actress and her presence inevitably brightens the stage.

Once some initial jitters were out of the way, baritone Lee Poulis proved a buoyant, comedic Papageno; if Harpo Marx had dressed himself in feathers, then agreed to speak and sing German opera, one imagines he might have looked and sounded much this way. (Poulis was the clear favorite of the sizable contingent of children in the house, who behaved immaculately and added some infectious laughter to the afternoon.) One's heart went out to the soprano JiYoung Lee, who was forced to sing the Queen of the Night's first aria while suspended a dozen feet in the air, sounding understandably nervous (what was the director thinking?). She made a stronger impression in the Queen's second aria, although her sense of pitch diminishes as her voice rises into the stratosphere. Amanda Squitieri brought delightful high spirits to the small but crucial role of Papagena.

Tenor Corey Evan Rotz, who has done admirable and versatile work in any number of smaller roles for the troupe, was only a middling Tamino, surprisingly parched and effortful for most of the afternoon. Bass Benjamin von Atrops managed to retain some of Sarastro's nobility even though he was made up rather like an Elvis impersonator from the Planet of the Apes; he has the low notes for the part, but too many of them were woolly and indistinct. Christina Martos, Leslie Mutchler and Erin Elizabeth Smith played the Three Ladies as a sort of sci-fi answer to the Andrews Sisters: They played off one another, having fun with their roles, both singly and collectively.

I wish Jennifer Adler, Adam Faruqi and Chris Stull -- here called the "three spirits" instead of the usual "three boys," for obvious reasons -- hadn't been amplified so much: The unearthly radiance of their music took on a decidedly TV Martian tinge. There was worthy support from Robert Baker as Monostatos; Thomas Beard as the Speaker; Tim Augustin, David Grimes and David B. Morris as the three priests; and James Shaffran as the Second Man in Armor. Heinz Fricke conducted lovingly, with tempos that were eager and exuberant but never too fast.

WNO General Director Placido Domingo made a surprise appearance to welcome the audience, to widespread oohs and aahs. This performance was intended to promote opera to a new subset that the company calls "Generation O" -- defined as "students and young professionals between the ages of 18 and 35" that WNO hopes will turn into its next subscription base. If you belong to that much-sought-after demographic, WNO would like to hear from you: E-mail generationO@dc-opera.org for bargain tickets, information and other incentives.

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