The conception was brilliant: place Mozart’s beloved masterpiece, set to a text by librettist Emanuel Schikaneder in German, and recast and re-contextualize it in Mezo-America. It was definitely cool, as one of the lines in the successful new English translation by veterans Kelley Rourke, Leon Major and John Conklin cleverly put it, but judging by the opening night’s performance on October 4th at Shubert Theatre, the magic was sometimes elusive.
The place is close to Mayan temples and the time is the present. The dialogue begins with four college students on an archeological trip that sets up the modern-day analog of four of the opera’s characters, the mutually attracted Tamino and Pamina and the good guy / bad guy pair of Papageno and Mostostasos. Not unlike with the legend of Orfeo, a snakebite sends Tamino into a drug-induced alternate existence where Schikaneder’s characters become Mayan temple priests and deities, rather than the original Egyptian ones. It is an effective transference supported by Nancy Leary’s thought-provoking costumes and John Conklin’s evocative set design. As in the original, Tamino awakens to find three ladies competing for this handsome but unconscious intruder. Unfortunately, their competition extended to disagreement on rhythm and meter, and sometimes even pitch. Similar ensemble problems reappeared with solos and duets in other scenes, despite conductor David Angus’s steady hand and the orchestra’s unanimity and finesse.
Zach Borichevshy’s potent, youthful tenor was a wise choice for role of Tamino, as was Deborah Selig’s delicious lyricism as Tamina. Both possess rich color and timbre throughout their range and combine it with strong stage presence. Not far behind was Neal Ferreira’s athletic and tattooed enfant terrible, Monostatos. As a hip but inept gangster, his agile and silvery tenor was a perfect fit. Ordinary singspiel comic actors without much vocal training sang Mozart’s Monostasos and Papageno, but the composer did not treat their vocal writing any less carefully. In many ways Papageno is given the best melodies, which is appropriate, as his character serves as the entry point for the average guy in Mozart’s day as well as our own. In every sense, Andrew Garland’s homespun, never overdone interpretation and sweet baritone brought the role to life.
One of the ironies of opera in the vernacular is the need for supertitles. Singers’ priorities lie in making beautiful and technically consistent vowels and that makes intelligibility suffer. Fine. But when vowels are modified in such a way that it sounds out of place and serves no purpose, one begins to wonder. Such was the problem with So Young Park’s Queen of the Night and David Cushing’s Sarastro. This minor fault stood out only because both singers possess glorious instruments and otherwise flawless technique. Park exhibits tremendous prowess as a coloratura—the gala-night audience was clearly pleased — but her stage presence did not dazzle. Cushing has the testosterone, range and resonance as a bass to make this a signature role. Although the chorus never made it onstage, their superb singing, under the tutelage of coach Michelle Alexander, was a highlight. John Robinson’s work with the boys of St. Paul’s Cambridge shone through the talents of the three boys he sent from the Choir School.
It’s no secret that the Magic Flute spells success for opera companies, its almost universal appeal usually producing box office gold. The question becomes a matter of putting new wine in old wineskins, hence so many interesting and varied productions in recent years. For the most part, the BLO can pat themselves on the back for mounting one that deserves a place among the better. It just needs a few tweaks.