Sendak went beyond a mere picture book in his renderings, which fused ancient Egyptian symbolism and Enlightenment-era Europe (white wigs and satin dresses) with the lush dreamworld foliage of “Where the Wild Things Are,” his most popular book. And you’d have to be a churl not to like it. But as directed by Christopher Mattaliano, with sets that at this point are something of a remove from the originals, many of the pleasures this production offered were remembered ones, agreeable evocations of a shared past — our own, as well as Mozart’s. And the lovely sets became essentially a backdrop for the ardent essays of the committed young artists so often cast in this opera — singing in the rhymes of Andrew Porter’s venerable English translation, also bearing its own sense of nostalgia.
Musically, it was a capable if not flashy evening. The conductor Eun Sun Kim is building a significant career in some of the world’s big houses, and started this season as the Houston Grand Opera’s principal guest conductor. But her work on Saturday was a little mushy, not crisp and not always completely synchronized with what was happening onstage.
As for the cast: WNO clearly drew on the American “Magic Flute” singers of the moment, since both David Portillo (as the prince, Tamino) and Kathryn Lewek (with coloratura fireworks as the Queen of the Night) are doing the same roles at the Metropolitan Opera next month, and Sydney Mancasola, who made her company debut as Pamina, sang the role at the Met last season. No need to go to New York this year; you can hear the same thing here in Washington. Of the three, Mancasola sounded the best to me on Saturday night, singing with a rich lyric sound and considerable affect. Portillo, whom I’ve loved in past outings, sounded tight and metallic, and Lewek, though she commands all of the throat-busting notes of this high-wire role, seemed to be making a less substantial sound than she did as a breathtaking Cunegonde at Glimmerglass a few years ago. Another artist I’ve admired, Wei Wu, was not at his best in the role of Sarastro, which sounded too low for him to sing easily; he sounded cautious and a little fragile, rather than stentorian and commanding.
There was, however, some strong singing in the smaller roles. The Three Ladies, the Queen of the Night’s henchwomen, nearly blew everyone else off the stage, particularly Meredith Arwady, who brought the trio to new lows in the most positive sense of the term (the other two were Alexandria Shiner — who sang Ariadne at Wolf Trap this summer — and Deborah Nansteel).
And casting David Cangelosi in the problematic role of Monostatos was inspired. Monostatos was originally written as a black man, and the opera world today wrings its hands about how to deal with the blatant racism of the concept. This production simply turned him into a jerky, power-hungry, #MeToo-type white guy, and Cangelosi went to town playing up the character’s officious buffoonery, singing strongly all the while.
A highlight was Papageno — isn’t it always? The simple bird-catcher looking for a mate, a comic foil to Tamino’s nobility, is a perennial operatic favorite. But Michael Adams managed to bring a welcome naturalism to the role — avoiding in his spoken dialogue the declamation that’s become part of this opera’s tradition — sounding like a normal person, while singing with vivid color. Alexandra Nowakowski’s Papagena was in every respect a worthy mate.