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THE BIRDCATCHER’S TAIL: OC's The Magic Flute
Picture by Opera Carolina
January 22, 2013
Opera Carolina’s Production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (January 19, 24, 27 at the Blumenthal Theatre)
The Magic Flute, Mozart’s last opera, contains his some of his noblest as well as his silliest music. It is a work in which a Lutheran chorale is rapidly followed upon by a patter song of nonsense syllables. No other work by Mozart (except Don Giovanni) has more horses in the same stable—what would amount to stylistic incongruity in other hands—and yet it achieves balance almost by default. This is its mystery. W.J. Turner, in his excellent study of Mozart, describes it as the hybrid of a Singspiel–or a musical comedy—with an oratorio. In practice, this would mean a synthesis between something like Israel in Egypt or Judas Maccabeus with No, No Nanette—which almost happens in The Magic Flute. This may explain why it has influenced both Beethoven’s majestic Fidelio and Gilbert and Sullivan.
The libretto by Emmanuel Schikaneder (who also played the first Papageno) has often been decried for the inconsistencies of its plot, but across the chorus of its detractors falls the giant shadow of Goethe, who attempted to write a sequel. It is a notoriously difficult work to stage—a dragon must be slain swiftly by three ladies even as they sing a tightly woven, almost madrigal-like chorus within moments of the first parting of the curtain, and this is just the beginning. Costuming is equally tricky. Is Papageno human or a plumed birdman from myth? Does this Birdcatcher have tail feathers? Even so, the history of the staging of The Magic Flute is unusually distinguished, beginning with Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s sets for the 1816 production in Berlin, which have never been surpassed. More recently, artists as different as Maurice Sendak, David Hockney, and William Kentridge have staged versions, each memorable—Kentridge’s being the very best—and both Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Branagh have put it on film.
Based on Jun Kaneko’s superb Madama Butterfly, I expected his Magic Flute to join this company, but this was not to be. For the most part, Kaneko tossed out the Egypto-Masonic paraphernalia that typically accompanies The Magic Flute, but his designs—which resembled the Constructivist paintings of Malevich or Rodchenko projected onto the rice paper-and-bamboo textures of a Shoji screen—were too abstract to comment except very generally on the action. Graphically gorgeous but irrelevant, their faux-naif kindergarten qualities had an unwonted effect of flattening the music. Timing was also a problem, as the animated projections happened at a pace never quite in time or tandem with the score but which seemed instead almost in competition with it, muddling things while intending to extend them. The main problem, though, was that for Madama Butterfly, Kaneko found illuminating visual metaphors for the action, whereas here he seemed content to illustrate his own techniques. There is more to The Magic Flute than he found in it.
As much of a problem was the not-so-good to increasingly-awful translation from the German into… well, not English, but translation-ese, with an inordinate amount of inverted word-order and irrelevant padding. It was a translation in which every character consistently formed reversed sentences, like Yoda. Too bad for the singers, who suffered this handicap in addition to their already challenging music. They had to constantly overthink the word-order because of its unnaturalness rather than let the music flow like speech, and the first night performance found them halting over their lines thanks to mangled syntax. I wonder why W.H. Auden’s and Chester Kallman’s ingenious translation from 1957, or the more recent version by J.D. McClatchy, which is brilliant, was not used instead.
What made this frustrating was that most of the singers were exceptionally well cast, if not well directed. Shawn Mathey was a properly noble, plausibly idealistic Tamino; he might be a Tamino for the ages under a happier star. Yunah Lee sang her part of Pamina with a sweet integrity that reminded me of Gundula Janowitz in the same role—who could ask for more? Tom McNichols’ Sarastro was also something to sit up straight in your seat about, producing his hearse-like low notes with ease—and these are some of the lowest notes in all of opera. Kyle Pfortmiller was a snappy Papageno. The only weak principal was Maria Aleida’s Queen of the Night, who had the vocal agility but not the lungs for her difficult role. A Magic Flute with a too dainty Queen of the Night, however, is like a big car with a tiny engine.
The problems with pacing were complicated further by the general practice of having the singers face the audience, as in an oratorio, rather than direct their exchanges to each other. This stopped the action in a work where continuity is greatly needed. It was jarring in the recognition scene between Papageno and Papagena, who sang of their mutual devotion over the heads of the audience, not to each other. Earlier, the ominous chorale of the two armored men was querulous when it should inspire dread. The scene of the ordeal by fire and water–the resurrection scene which in large part gives The Magic Flute its deeper meaning—was lightweight, despite Yunah Lee’s and Shawn Mathey’s fine singing. It was here that Kaneko’s staging seemed most uncomprehending and at odds with Mozart, who may be child-like but who never was childish. Much earlier, the off-stage choruses—some of Mozart’s most haunting music—were muffled, and much of their grandeur lost, perhaps because the chorus was too small or not situated properly for the acoustics of the house.
The three ladies attendant on the Queen of the Night (sung by Diane McElwen-Martin, Melinda Whittington, and Daidree Tofano) and the three wise “boys” (Alexandra Engle, Margaret Tyler, and Erica Powell) seemed to me to be almost as good as my favorites, their counterparts on the old Solti recording. James Meena, who has proven himself time and again to be a fine Mozartian, seemed almost as roped-in as the singers in this production, and his conducting did not seem as ebullient as it had been in the recent The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan Tutti. This is a beautiful production, but one adrift from its subject, worth experiencing not as an opera but something separate and divisible as a visual or a musical event.