The Washington Opera's new production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" was already a smash hit before anyone heard a note of it Saturday night in the Eisenhower Theater. The 10 performances have been sold out for months; there is a waiting list of more than 800 for any tickets that happen to be returned; and the opening night's standing room was packed, with people peering into the darkness in search of empty seats.
Judiciously trimmed and adapted to the sensibilities of 1990s Washington, this "Flute" is, at the moment, only sporadically magic; the performers are still settling in for the long haul. But it seems to have everything needed to justify its success. It is performed in English (a modified version of the Martin translation), and the superb acoustics of the Eisenhower combined with the excellent verbal projection of most of the performers (the three boys and three ladies are the main exceptions) give the sung and spoken words a fine clarity. The sets and costumes, by Zack Brown, are a constant delight, situating the opera somewhere between an imaginary Egypt and a never-never land where rocks have human faces and sculpted lions can roar. His animal costumes are classics of a highly specialized art.
Michael Morgan's conducting has the same clarity, balance and superb sense of style -- above all, the same expertise at making the instruments work with the voices, never against them, and the same suppleness in rhythm and phrasing -- that are fondly remembered from his work with the Summer Opera Theatre here a few years ago. The orchestra sounds excellent under his direction; so do the singers (notably in ensembles) and the chorus -- trained by Thomas Beveridge and exemplifying his usual high standards.
The romantic leads are filled by two highly accomplished, internationally known singers with strong followings in Washington: tenor John Aler and soprano Faith Esham. Aler may be the best exponent of the role of Tamino now before the public; Esham sings not only with precision of intonation and purity of tone but with an emotional involvement that helps bring the rather pallid figure of Pamina vividly to life. The Papageno, Theodore Baerg, is a total charmer, as those who heard him in "The Barber of Seville" already know, and he has a worthy partner in Patricia Wulf's Papagena.
The Queen of the Night, Sally Wolf, knows how to get up to that role's famous high F's -- and how to bounce up and down on the C's and D's as the music requires -- once she gets warmed up to the task. Her Act 2 aria made the audience applaud almost endlessly, quite rightly forgetting some tentative moments in her Act 1 aria. She also radiates the role's hysterical malevolence with great power. Her opposite number, Sarastro, is equally well represented in the low-note department by Kevin Langan, a bass of striking stage presence and deep, organ-like tones that you feel as well as hear.
The Monostatos of Adolfo Llorca, expertly sung and acted, is an index of what makes this production different. This character, a Moor who lusts vigorously after the virginal Pamina, traditionally has been played in blackface, but this tradition has been abandoned in some recent American productions, including last summer's at Wolf Trap and the present one. In the Washington Opera production, Monostatos looks a little bit like Punch from the old Punch and Judy puppet shows; he also has a touch of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or perhaps a slightly shriveled Rigoletto. At any rate, he is strange and he is certainly a dirty old man, but it is a European sort of strangeness, with no trace of racism or xenophobia (the words have also been modified to eliminate color references).
I don't think the Washington Opera needs to fear picketing by pressure groups of Dirty Old Men; they probably are not well organized enough, and in any case there is something wistful about the character in this production. One almost wishes he could find a dirty old lady, as Papageno the bird-man finds Papagena the bird-woman and Prince Tamino finds Princess Pamina. Perhaps he should invite the Queen of the Night out for drinks.
But something is missing, something that is there in Wolf's Queen of the Night: an emotional pressure, a level of stress, verging on insanity, that brings terror and a special kind of depth into some performances of "The Magic Flute." The problem is not Llorca's; it is the production's. A decision has been made to stress the cute and funny elements in the opera. This decision can be seen in the quiet revisions of the text, in the Act 2 ordeals of fire and water that have been diluted into purely symbolic events, and in the characterization of Papageno, who is always cute and funny but seldom as much so as in this production.
There is nothing wrong with this decision, presumably made by director Sonja Frisell, who shows great expertise in coordinating stage movements, underlining relationships and selected themes and making the whole production work smoothly. But there are trade-offs; it is hard to be cute and profound at the same time, and it is easy to simplify the incredible, somewhat undigested jumble of ideas and motifs that were poured into this opera.
In sum, this is a highly enjoyable "Magic Flute," but by no means the only possible one or the one that explores most thoroughly what this opera is about. One dimension I missed in particular is its pre-Wagnerian mystique. The three ladies, carrying spears and wearing helmets and evening gowns, did look as though they might become Valkyries, and Monostatos also had a touch of Alberich in him, but there was not nearly as much anticipation of the "Ring" as one could legitimately put into a "Magic Flute."
On opening night, the production still had a way to go in terms of coordination and polish. This was true beyond the obvious problems -- voices talking backstage that could be heard in the front rows, a stagehand visible to much of the audience as he tinkered with the curious vehicle (a flying, winged hand) that carries the three boys. These should not happen again. It may take a while longer to perfect small points of timing etc. on stage, but there will be nine more performances to work it all out.