The young singers of the Wolf Trap Opera Company give Mozart's "The Magic Flute" the sublime kindergarten treatment. The production, which opened on Thursday evening and will bring the troupe's 1999 season to a close tonight, takes the childish low road at every turn. Paradoxically, this is the most reliable way to ascend the heights of the topsy-turvy world Mozart created.
With David Hockney's deservedly famous and well-traveled sets framing the production--which has the accidental candor of children playing grown-up games--the opera tickles and touches in all the predictable ways. There are cute kids in jammies singing heavenly music, adorable animals in a peaceable kingdom, a strong daddy figure with a subterranean voice, and a menacing harridan singing preposterously stratospheric music. And, of course, the charming ciphers on which all will be writ, two young couples from different neighborhoods, both destined for the happiness appropriate to their station. Predictable yes, but a welcome predictability in which things that in the real world would be downright ugly--this is the most lovely of misogynistic operas--are defanged and declawed and ready to lay their muzzles on your lap.
There are other, nastier ways to stage this opera, but none quite so faithful to what we wish the opera were: a fairy tale with the charming good manners of a less morally ambiguous time. With its libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, "The Magic Flute" is a literary critic's dream, failing in interesting and prophetic ways the more it strives for four-square clarity about good and evil, light and dark, truth and gossip, masculine virtues and feminine failings. Hockney, who clearly loves this problematic story with all the pure-hearted devotion of one of the opera's bedazzled cult members, forwent these possibilities and did something far more remarkable than the usual overintellectualized post-mod production. When he first designed the sets for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Britain, he imagined a perfect "Magic Flute," from the ground up, and came as close as humanly possible to making us see it.
The director, Michael Ehrman, is true to Hockney's vision, giving us ample quantities of what we're well used to in this singspiel, yet invigorating the old gags with small and intelligent details. The few liberties he takes with the libretto--including some amusing proof of Papagena's fertility--are sensible and need no apologies. Better yet, they need no explanations.
Ehrman is working with a talented cast, fresh-faced and fresh of voice. While most of these young singers are still assembling the requisite arsenal of operatic skills, some are fine actors and others have put together fully mature voices, ready for wider exposure. And several, including especially soprano Cynthia Watters (as Pamina) and baritone Daniel Belcher (as Pagageno), have the full package and may soon be numbered among the company's impressive list of kids who made good.
The youth of the performers, most of them in their twenties, affects the opera at every level. Tenor Justin Vickers, who plays Tamino, is delightfully callow, the kind of prince who spends too much time reading novels about dashing princes just like him, and rather too little honing the martial arts. This naivete comes naturally to him, and it's true to the prince Mozart and Schikaneder have created. Perhaps bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel lacks gravitas (and needs a bit more heft in the rumbling nether depths), but his Sarastro is human, a trait older singers very often overlook.
And soprano Heather Buck's Queen of the Night succeeds in proportion to the degree of physical movement she is allowed. Her first act aria, sung from high above the stage, far from the audience, faltered Thursday (and suffered from tempo disagreements with the orchestra). Her second act jeremiad was more creditably done and established her as a singer with a physically powerful stage presence.
Except for some misfiring surtitles early in the first act, the soft-pedaling of Monostatos's racial self-loathing in the second act and some dangerously blinding flash paper, there were few stumbles. This critic, hearing the company for the first time, was pleased to find the orchestra, conducted by Scott Bergeson, smart, accurate and free of any glaring sectional inadequacies.