Review by Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D, Freelance Classical Music Writer
Central City Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute,” in repertory through August 5, is ambitious, imaginative and bold. For those who know and revere Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final operatic masterpiece, it is also potentially controversial. It adds a level of profundity to the story’s serious messages. But it also adds another layer of absurdity to its more fantastic and ridiculous elements.
Director Alessandro Talevi has imagined the action as a fantasy created in the toy theater of three precocious German boys. Costume choices and settings turn some things completely upside down from what is expected. Thus, the Queen of the Night is presented as a stern and severe mother figure from the outset rather than a radiant and awe-inspiring personage. Her Three Ladies—who are usually decked out in brilliant colors—remain in black servant liveries throughout.
This helps to facilitate the often-jarring plot shift, when it is revealed that the Queen, far from being an innocent victim, has darkness in her soul while the ostensibly villainous Sarastro is noble, righteous and wise.
Up until the pivotal scene where the central character, Prince Tamino, has his conversation with Sarastro’s spokesman (known as the Speaker), the action remains centered on the boys’ bedroom, with entrances and exits coming through a fireplace (as a sort of portal for fantasy). Once Sarastro makes his appearance toward the end of the first act, the stage opens up to reveal some kind of carnival. Entrances now come via a stage-spanning slide rather than through the fireplace. But the bedroom returns for a particularly intriguing portrayal of trials through which Tamino and his beloved Pamina (daughter of the Queen) must pass.
The boys (who become the opera’s iconic Three Spirits), undergo changes as well, exchanging pajamas for scout uniforms when they take on the role of spiritual guides. The portrayal of Sarastro himself is the most potentially controversial element. Rather than an austere priest, he essentially becomes P.T. Barnum. While Talevi’s objective is clear here, it also creates some incongruities. For one thing, when Tamino has his encounter with the Speaker, the latter is being dressed in quasi-Egyptian garb more in line with traditional “Flute” productions. Thus, it is somewhat jarring when the rest of Sarastro’s troupe (for this is a certainly more a troupe than an order) is revealed.
The other potential objection is the portrayal of the bird-catcher Papageno, Tamino’s companion. The costume worn by baritone Will Liverman is a wonder of ingenuity and visual sight gags. Papageno hilariously enters riding an ostrich—but then he never dismounts, no matter where the plot goes. Not during the trial scene and not during the attempted suicide scene. Granted, the way the costume is constructed would have made such a dismount problematic, but it just becomes more and more bizarre. One gets the feeling that perhaps Papageno actually is a bird-human hybrid (something obliquely suggested in the original libretto, but generally never really adopted). In Papageno’s final scene, when he finally gets his perfect match, Papagena, yet another wonderful layer is added to this interpretation.
But these “objections” can only be raised if one does not appreciate Talevi’s vision, which really is deep and meaningful, becoming especially poignant at the very end. The bedroom/theater set is austere, but warm. The slide is used to great effect. Visually, the production is arresting. Musically, it is breathtaking.
Without the incredible and committed performances of the cast, none of these concepts would work. Despite the fact that her character is “toned down,” soprano Jeni Houser is an amazing, even fearsome Queen of the Night. Both of her tour-de-force arias are delivered with confidence and power, and she negotiates the famous ultra-high F’s and scintillating coloratura with little apparent effort.
Soprano Katherine Manley is luminous as Pamina. In contrast to her mother, Pamina is dressed in bright colors throughout, symbolizing her eventual initiation into Sarastro’s troupe and her basic goodness. Manley is emotive and expressive. Her aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” is genuinely moving, and her first act duet with Liverman is an absolute joy.
As Tamino, tenor Joseph Dennis is strong and confident. He has the opera’s first big aria, the “portrait song,” which he delivers tenderly and beautifully. He also deftly negotiates the character’s “crisis of faith” in the scene with the Speaker. Liverman as Papageno nearly steals the show. Aside from the intentionally ridiculous costume, Liverman’s sense of comedy is impeccable. And he sings Papageno’s familiar melodies with both resonance and nuance.
Bass Ashraf Sewailam—a University of Colorado alumnus and longtime favorite of Colorado audiences—provides as arresting a portrayal of the Speaker as could possibly be hoped for. This is a role that is as difficult as it is enigmatic, as the singer is asked to deliver the opera’s most important scene in a long stretch of unmelodic recitative.
The true hero of the production, however, is bass Kevin Langan as Sarastro. Langan has played this role for decades, but has probably never been asked to play it quite like this. While Talevi’s conception of the character makes sense, the serious arias Mozart wrote for him really do not fit with that conception. Langan somehow makes it work. The ringmaster is, after all, a father figure. Only someone who knows the character inside and out could interpret him in this way so successfully.
Central City’s magnificent Bonfils-Stanton Apprentice and Studio Artists are represented in the chorus and supporting roles. Chief among them are Tasha Koontz, Kira Dills-DeSurra, and Melanie Ashkar as the Three Ladies. Mozart wrote his most luscious harmonies for the Ladies, and this trio never disappoints in their delivery. Tenor Fidel Angel Moreno is delightfully wicked as the villainous slave Monostatos. And soprano Véronique Filloux makes a charming impact at the end as Papagena.
The pivotal three boys are played by rotating members of the Colorado Children’s Chorale. For the most part, they negotiate Mozart’s difficult harmonies with aplomb and carry the plot forward with enthusiasm.
The always-fantastic Central City orchestra is led by André de Ridder, who sensitively and colorfully leads his musicians, communicating effectively with the singers. Papageno’s bells are sufficiently audible, and Masha Popova confidently and strongly plays the important flute solos. The decision to have the cast both sing and speak in German—rather than the usual linguistic hybrid—works particularly well in this production.