The New England Conservatory’s production of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart’s Singspiel Die Zauberflöte at the Cutler Majestic Theatre is whimsically delightful. (I saw it on Nov. 20.) Performed in English, in Jeremy Sans’s amusing translation, the work is given a futuristic setting in which the characters appear among giant circuit boards juxtaposed in post-modern collage with ambiguous Mayan, Egyptian and Masonic shapes, lettering, and masks. The headdresses worn by the Queen of the Night and her warriors are adorned with fluorescent glow sticks, and Papageno’s orange crocs complemented his “bells” (a pair of silver gloves with similarly glowing fingertips.) In the opening scene, the Queen’s three warriors, one bearing a laser gun, briefly took the iconic stance of Charlie’s Angels. In all, the staging communicated a youthful irreverence that belied the veneration with which these young artists treated Mozart’s music.
Due to its long presence in the operatic canon, there are specific numbers and even pitches in the Magic Flute that are sine qua non to the opera’s success. One example is the height and depth of Mozart’s demands on the authoritative vocal parts. The Queen of the Night’s high F is contrasted to Sarastro’s low F; both are extreme pitches that must be hit with confidence and ease to ensure an overall balance. In her big vengeance aria, “Der Hölle Rache,” Soprano Melanie Leinbach sang her high F amidst all of her coloratura fireworks with a combination of brilliance and poise — all the while maintaining a threatening onstage presence. At the other end of the spectrum, Bass ringer Eric Johnson’s Sarastro hit his low Fs with an effortless confidence. This contrast was supported physically by Johnson’s extreme height compared with Leinbach’s diminutive build. Well done!
Tenor Michael Kuhn’s Tamino, however, had a difficult night. During the first act’s portrait aria his heroic stage presence and wonderfully clear and sweet instrument was interrupted by a slight crack. This insignificant setback compounded as it sapped his confidence and led to more difficulties later in the act. By the second act he had calmed down, but in a terrible irony he did not have much of a chance to redeem himself — Schikaneder’s (rather imperfect) libretto leaves him mute for a large portion of the second act. David Tafone’s Papageno was ribald and hilarious, his oversized body shape in the green suit exaggerating his comedic presence. His animation of a bird puppet during his entrance aria “ Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” almost distracted the audience from his warm baritone.
However, the star of the show was Bethany Worrell’s Pamina. She sang with a gorgeous and flexible soprano that revealed a large measure of dramatic intelligence and musical acumen. Her plangent “ Ach, ich fühl’s” was astonishing. Further, the timbre of her voice was well matched with Kuhn’s tenor. In the second act finale, when Pamina and Tamino’s lines join in a brief duet, the audience got a glimpse of the bright future awaiting both of these singers.
The orchestra, conducted by John Greer, was lucid and precise without being cold. Greer’s interpretation allowed the beauty of the score to emerge even as his restraint allowed the singers to obtain the spotlight. Special credit also goes to John Cuff’s excellent lighting design particularly in the temple. The chorus, mastered by Daniel Wyneken, was excellent when onstage, but when piped in through the house speakers it tended to overwhelm the moment.
Overall, the opera was a triumph and a testament to the talented students at New England Conservatory. When the final curtain came down and the lights came up, this reviewer noticed that the audience seemed to be made up almost entirely of students, teachers, and parents of the performers. If there is a grand secret to Boston’s music scene, it lies in the amazing quality of the student productions.