IT IS HARD to escape the impression that far more energy has gone into set design and technology than into music for the Washington Opera's new production of Mozart's "Magic Flute," but the delights wrought by designer Zack Brown's whimsy and creativity are enough to make this a memorable offering.
Brown's fairy-tale Egypt is a land where lion-head gates roar like MGM mastheads, blue dragons and over-stuffed ostriches dance to the flute's magic, full meals appear in a puff of fiery smoke and scenes change, presumably, with the smoothness of the music's transitions (although on opening night there were evident backstage glitches in this). Trapdoors in the stage allow props to appear and singers to disappear, the Queen of the Night enters in a wonderful billow of blue, the genii float by from time to time on an upraised hand and the whole production proceeds with a pervading sense of good humor.
It's not at all clear, however, where all this fun and games leaves Mozart's other message, the one about truth and strength and virtue that figures so prominently in the second act. In this production it receives little more than a nod. And alongside all the visual opulence is an orchestra with an undernourished-sounding string section and a chorus of priests that could use a major infusion of resonance.
The reasonably well-balanced cast is headed by Theodore Baerg, a charming and athletic Papageno who sings and acts with distinction. Faith Esham's Pamina is reliable if not always compelling. John Aler sings the role of Tamino with splendid lyric ease, but does not solve the difficult problem of portraying the character's foolish naivete.
Sally Wolf, a properly nasty Queen of the Night, makes rather heavy weather of her famous aria, and Kevin Langan is a sympathetic and majestic Sarastro. Adolfo Llorca is a wonderfully lecherous Monostatos, Gloria Parker, Melanie Sonnenberg and Kay Paschal are delightful as the trio of ladies, Patricia Wulf is a fine awkward Papagena and the three young genii sing nicely (although it would have been even nicer if their faces had been better lit).
With the exception of a couple of uncomfortable moments, director Sonja Frisell keeps things moving smoothly, and conductor Michael Morgan manages the pacing and the ensemble with poise and authority.
THE WASHINGTON OPERA -- Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Continues Friday, Sunday (matinee), Thursday, Jan. 12, 14, 20 (matinee), 23 and 25 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Performances are sold out by subscription, but returned tickets and standing room may be available; call the Washington Opera box office at 202/416-7800.