Virginia Opera's 'Magic Flute' a delight at GMU

Fine singing, English language version update this Mozart classic. Photo: David A. Belloff

VIENNA, Va., December 13, 2013 – Dark magic. Funny animals. An evil queen. A huge dragon. And terrifying ordeals of fire and water. The latest Hollywood horror franchise? Nope. We’re talking about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ever-popular comic opera “The Magic Flute.” Or, if you prefer the original German, “Die Zauberflöte.” 

The Virginia Opera was in town last weekend on a whistle-stop to George Mason’s Center for the Arts to perform the opera here in a production whose sets were threadbare around the edges, but whose cast of singers lifted this audience favorite significantly above the average performance. 

Written as a German “singspiel” interspersing spoken dialogue with music, “The Magic Flute” was Mozart’s last opera and one of the last major works he composed. It is still astonishing today to think that this amusing comic confection—a curious blending of fantasy and odd bits of homage to Freemasonry—was penned by a composer whose health was rapidly failing and whose tragic end was close at hand. 

When the Queen of the Night’s ladies tell Pagageno (David Pershall) to keep it locked, they mean it. (Credit: David A. Belloff)

Nevertheless, it’s the composer’s marvelous music that has kept this opera in the repertoire more or less continuously since the 1790s when it first appeared. Perhaps it’s because “Magic Flute” one of few operas where you can just sit back, relax and enjoy the music without having to worry about whether the characters are believable or not. That Virginia Opera’s cast actually succeeded in making each one of them more human and more sympathetic is a tribute to their talent, skill and professionalism as both singers and actors. 

Virginia Opera chose to give its production of “The Magic Flute” an update by casting it as a tale within a tale. In this version, the romantic leads, Tamino (tenor Matthew Plenk) and Pamina (soprano Nadine Sierra) are a contemporary married couple whose relationship is getting sour. But, by means of what appears to be a joint dream, they are transported to the fantasy world where Mozart’s opera takes place, a journey pantomimed throughout the performance of the opera’s popular overture. 

In this way, the opera’s flimsy, largely allegorical plot is made more believable as an parable in which the virtues of love, trust, and faith are affirmed, inspiring the real life couple to go forth and due likewise. Okay, this is still a stretch, but it does succeed in making the action on stage more relatable to our own time for those new to this work.

The Queen of the Night (Heather Buck) sends Tamino (Matthew Plenk) on a mission. (Credit: David A. Belloff)

 

As Tamino, Mr. Plenk seemed a bit wooden as an actor. That proved secondary, fortunately, to his clear, powerful voice. That gave his character the authority he needed to navigate an alien world filled with mysterious rituals, spells and sorcerors that his character can scarcely grasp. 

Ms. Sierra created a believable Pamina who travels the same mystical road from a naïve adolescence to the strength and conviction of adulthood. Her voice was a fine counterpart to Mr. Plenk’s, and their duets were among the high points of this production. 

Baritone David Pershall’s bird man, Pagageno, stole every comic scene he was in, aided considerably by the company’s spruced-up English language libretto which, in the spoken scenes, allowed him to ham it up like a night club comedian, an opportunity he never failed to exploit. An added plus: his fine, strong baritone and amusingly effective phrasing demonstrated his considerable vocal skill set as well. 

As his eventual lady love, Papagena, soprano Amanda Opuszynski was equally adept at comedy and, although her role was small, she was a fine and articulate vocal love match for Mr. Pershall’s Papageno as well. 

As the Queen of the Night, Mozart’s classic villainess, soprano Heather Buck whose singing we admired in the company’s production of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” last season, navigated her character’s famously treacherous showpiece area with fluidity and without discernable strain at the top. Brava! 

The Queen’s three “ladies” (Natalie Polito, Courtney Miller and Sarah Williams) together provided one of the best trios we’ve ever heard in a “Magic Flute” production. Applying just the right comic touch, they were a joy to hear and behold and served to keep the proceedings light and area every time they threatened to get too serious. 

Tenor Ryan Connally was an appropriately oily Monostatos. But as this opera’s lascivious villain, Mr. Ryan—a light, lyric tenor who is also slight of build—never quite convinced us that he was a particularly menacing villain. 

When Kenneth Kellogg’s Sarastro shows up, you know he means business. (David A. Belloff)

Bass Kenneth Kellogg, in his Virginia Opera debut as the sorceror Sarastro is familiar to us already from his fine work in the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program where he has already demonstrated his considerable talent. His Sarastro in this production was regal and commanding as befits this role. 

Mr. Kellogg’s projection of this key but mysterious character was further enhanced by the uncommon brilliance of his instrument, which still achieved perfect clarity even when traversing the lowest part of this singer’s considerable range, which is among the greatest of challenges for the bass voice in any opera. 

Michael Shell’s direction of the enterprise was crisp and efficient, and, under Mark Russell Smith’s baton, members of the Virginia Symphony accompanied the singers with sensitivity, but also shone in moments like the overture where they demonstrated a finely honed ability to interpret Mozart’s music with delicacy and wit. 

Criticisms of this production are minor. We’ve already noted the somewhat aging sets, imported from the Sarasota Opera, as well as our minor quibble with the characterization of Monostasos. We’ll add to that the indistinctness of the chorus in this production. Whether due to stage placement, tentativeness, or both, the chorus could scarcely be heard at some points which robbed the production of drama just when it was needed most. 

All this having been said, our over all impression of Virginia Opera’s “The Magic Flute” was positive, helping cement once again this versatile company’s position as one of the most notable regional opera companies in the country. 

Rating: ** ½ (2 and ½ stars out of 4)

Upcoming: Virginia Opera’s next production—its first here in 2014—will be Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

 


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  

 

 

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