Let's face it. Mozart's "The Magic Flute" is an anachronism. A product of its times, it is blatantly racist and sexist -- the Moor Monostatos' crime is that he is a black man in love with the white Pamina, and Pamina's lover Tamino must free himself from the evil influence of women to be admitted into the sacred, quasi-Masonic temple of Sarastro.
Director John Lehmeyer, in his Summer Opera production of "The Magic Flute," which opened last night at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre, chose to admit the problems and play them for all they're worth.
Thus Monostatos and his three fawning henchmen are all in blackface, dressed in black, Egyptian-looking costumes festooned with gold bangles. The Queen of the Night is in a blond wig and dressed as if for the court of Louis XIV. Her three ladies, similarly dressed, are aging, oversexed harpies.
The costumes (also by Lehmeyer) are opulent with some clever touches. For instance, the egalitarian Sarastro is dressed just like the other members of his temple -- again Louis XIV -- except that his shoes are lighter in color. And the scenery by Holly Highfill is on par with the costumes: two levels with broad, ornate stone arches.
There were problems with Lehmeyer's approach. The staging of the Moors was exaggerated to the point of embarrassment. When they are transfixed by the magic bells, the sublime musical moment is totally erased by their inappropriately silly dance. And the three ladies strain credulity by pawing Tamino far too long. On the whole Lehmeyer dealt with the larger visual scenes better than personal, dramatic relationships.
Tenor Philip Bologna was simply perfect as the prince Tamino. Every phrase was sung with intelligence and style, and he maintained an even, beautiful tone throughout the evening. Detra Battle was a charming and sweet Pamina, with a voice to match. Bass Jonathan Deutsch warmed into his role as the deep-voiced Sarastro, and William Killmeier was a young, active Papagena.
The orchestra, conducted by Robert Gerle, was a bit rough, as were many of the technical aspects: lights went on and off, and scenery and stagehands often moved intrusively.