THE ITINERANT MELOMANE
GRAB YOUR OSTRICH AND GO: ALESSANDRO TALEVI’S FLUTE IS PURE MAGIC
Charles Jernigan, Jernigan Opera Journal
This review is based on two performances, on July 11 and 21.
The Magic Flute is an opera outside of time and space. It is a fantasy which is set in no specific era and no specific place, and thus it lends itself to directorial interpretation much more easily than many operas. Part fairy tale, part mythic hero quest and part moral instruction all wrapped in Masonic ideas and imagery (both Mozart and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder were avid Masons), the wild story is dream-like in its progression. Part way through the characters who seem good at first (the Queen of the Night and her Three Ladies) and the ones who seem bad (Sarastro, the Three Boys and the men of his Temple) shift position and the Queen becomes the villain and Sarastro becomes the good and wise man who instructs the lovers, Pamina and Prince Tamino, and has them take symbolic tests of fire and water before they are worthy of each other. And if Tamino and to some extent Pamina represent young people in search of the Spirit of Enlightened Wisdom, then their sidekick Papageno, the Birdcatcher, represents the Earth—the basic drives for hunger, thirst and sex. There are other strange and dream-like figures too, like Monastatos, who is a slave of Sarastro (as Caliban is to Prospero in The Tempest) and who moves from Sarastro’s Realm of the Sun to join the Queen’s Realm of the Night.
Mozart cloaked this fantastic story in the most wondrous music from start to finish, and thus it survives and flourishes in spite of giving stage directors endless problems in telling the story in a coherent manner for a modern audience, and directors must also deal with the period misogyny and racism which are in the libretto. But it is the music which leads us, via Tamino’s magic flute, to wisdom and via Papageno’s magic glockenspiel to find our life mates. Music is the key. Mozart makes the music symbolic too, with the Queen of the Night’s stratospheric coloratura which reaches up to high F above C and Sarastro’s deep, deep bass, which reaches down to low F.
I have seen three different productions of the Flute in recent years: Opera Colorado’s adequate but forgettable one in 2015; Barrie Kosky’s high tech, silent movie-inspired, animated production which I saw in L.A. in 2013 and again two years later; and this one in Central City. One problem that any stage director confronts immediately is the form of the opera—a singspiel with reams of spoken German dialogue punctuated by the musical numbers. Opera Colorado approached the problem by doing the spoken dialogue in English while keeping to German for the musical numbers. LA Opera cut almost all the spoken dialogue and when it was crucial for the plot, they put it on intertitles, the text boards used in silent film, or in projected bubbles, like a comic strip. The Central City production glories in the spoken text, and the cast does it all in German (good training for the apprentice artists). No matter: the jokes are all so clear and the supertitles are so well done, that the audience laughed continuously where it should. Undoubtedly some of the more strident examples of sexism and racism were cut, but this was a pretty full production and it never produced longeurs and feelings of ‘get me to the next musical number’.
This Die Zauberflöte’s director (let’s give it its German title since the production was in German throughout), Alessandro Talevi, must be one of the very best operatic stage directors in the business. I have seen four of his efforts at Central City—a marvelous Amadigi (Handel), a very fine Turn of the Screw (Britten) and a funny Marriage of Figaro. He seems to gravitate towards putting his productions in the late Victorian era (the Figaro was Downton Abbey all the way), although Amadigi had a more Renaissance tint. This Zauberflöte begins with mimed action during the overture when three boys at bedtime begin to play with a little puppet theater containing cut out characters from our story. Soon stern Victorian maids and a governess enter, punish the boys and put them to bed. As the opera proper opens, Prince Tamino invades the bedroom, chased, as the libretto indicates, by a monster serpent, this time created by shadow puppets projected by the children. Clearly, the whole wild story is a projection of the children’s imagination. When the Three Boys soon enter, they are our Victorian children, changed from their pajamas to mini-explorer costumes matching the nineteenth century explorer costume worn by Tamino.
Pamina and Boys
I must admit that I have never paid much attention to the Three Boys/Spirits in this opera. (They balance the Three Ladies, who in our production are the two maids and the governess transformed into the Queen’s servants.) Talevi’s entire production, however, is seen from their point of view, and they are present in a hundred, endlessly clever ways. In many productions the Boys are portrayed by girls or by mature female singers (one of the original ones was Schikaneder’s daughter Anna), but here they were three very talented boys from the Colorado Children’s Choir. I wish I could name them, but the program lists all of the boys who evidently rotate in the roles: Vinny Falk, Charles Hutchings, Adedoyin Jaiyesimi, Elliot Jenkins, Connor Kramer, and Gareth Page-Roth. Seeing the opera through the eyes of children makes perfect sense. When Ingmar Bergman filmed the opera, he constantly cut away to delighted children in the audience, but I have never seen a production where we see the story through the eyes of children who are actually in the opera. One wonders why Talevi’s concept doesn’t dominate all Magic Flute interpretations. It is truly brilliant.
Papageno, the Birdcatcher, is of course the comic center of the opera, just as the other characters play out serious and didactic lessons. (The didacticism which is a natural part of the opera, also makes tremendous sense in Talevi’s child-centered concept; at the end the Three Boys enter all grown up to nostalgically look over the place where they played as children.) In this instance, Papageno is not just a birdcatcher, he is a man on a bird, an ostrich to be specific. He rides his friendly bird like a cowboy in an avian rodeo—and the bird has personality too. In fact the ostrich is one of the funniest characters in the show (the mate he finds, Papagena, gets one to ride too). The man on the bird is Will Liverman, a baritone of immense talent and great stage presence. A good Papageno will always steal the show, and so it was this time, deservedly. But as a scene stealer, his ostrich came in a close second.
Papagena, Papageno and Friends
Joseph Dennis sang Tamino with a lovely tenor voice, especially in his portrait aria, and his Pamina, Katherine Manley was superb, most of all in her big, sad aria in Act II, “Ach, ich fühl’s” when she thinks Tamino has abandoned her. Her voice became quieter and quieter, the picture of despair. The Queen of the Night, Jeni Hauser, dressed as a regal Victorian, had her coloratura down pat and received strong applause for her second act aria, which is so recognizable. It is a light voice without a lot of “heft” but at Talevi’s direction she gave a really dramatic reading of the aria (“Der Hölle Rache”). She actually managed to move and act violently while navigating the fiendish coloratura—which expresses her fury. For once it was clear what all those notes were about. Kevin Langan was a sonorous Sarastro with low notes intact and audible (which is not always the case). His voice was a little rough on July 11, but most of the roughness was gone on the 21st. His temple was portrayed as a kind of Victorian circus with strong men and a dancing bear (another world dear to children of that era) and he was the Ringmaster. I won’t write about the slide: let that be a surprise. It may be the temple of Isis and Osiris, Egyptian deities with Masonic implications, but in this production the “temple” is decidedly more fun than heavy with symbolism.
Apprentice Artists Tasha Koontz, Kira Dills-DeSurra and Melanie Ashkar sang and acted the Three Ladies with aplomb and beautifully blending voices and Fidel Angel Romero, another Apprentice Artist, was a funny rather than menacing Monostatos. Ashraf Sewilam was a particularly impressive Speaker and Véronique Filloux, a Studio Artist, played Papagena/the Old Woman quite well.
Scenic Designer Madeleine Boyd gave us a simple, but effective set which transformed the Boys’ Victorian bedroom into a magic theater full of imaginative touches, and the lights by David Martin Jacques helped at every turn. André de Ridder conducted sensitively, and the chorus, which seemed underpowered to me on July 11th had improved considerably by the 21st.
If the Opera Colorado production was fine—traditional and a pleasant way to spend an afternoon—and Kosky’s production was high tech and computer enhanced at every turn, this Central City production was low tech, but extremely well thought through and endlessly delightful. In LA, the production was the star of the show; in Central City, the music could shine and the production never overwhelmed Mozart’s miraculous score. But Talevi once again found a way to use the small Central City space with innovation and human invention that always respected the music, the text and the story. He found (for me at least) a new way into Die Zauberflöte that worked astonishingly well. His overall idea seemed to be that the opera is about the process of growing up and the power of the imagination in that process. In spite of the symbolism and the psychology, however, Talevi’s Die Zauberflöte is first of all fun, the world seen through the eyes of a child.
My advice to anyone who reads this is to grab the nearest ostrich (or car or Uber or opera bus) and ride up the hill to Central City. Talevi’s Magic Flute may very well be the most magic one of all.