in: Reviews

April 2, 2014

A Magical Flute for Children

by

Federico Cortese and BYSO musicians (Stu Rosner photo)

Federico Cortese and BYSO musicians (Stu Rosner photo)

It was elating to have the opportunity to review the Boston Symphony Youth Orchestras’ adaptation of Mozart’s Magic Flute (in collaboration with BSO members), and to be surrounded Saturday night by children in the audience the same age I was when I fell in love with that opera. I shared in their wonder as it was being so professionally brought to life by such a talented and imaginative team.

When I was nine, I played my very first role onstage as the Queen of the Night in a children’s production of The Magic Flute at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (ISOMATA), in the mountains of Southern California. A visionary Children’s Center director, Althea Pratt, joined forces with summer camp co-founders, Bea Krone, to adapt the opera. In costume we acted and sang Mozart’s playful melodies under a grove of rocks and trees (using them as the stage and clambering over them for entrances and exits) at the base of the campus’s meadow. With Strawberry Creek behind and an audience in folding chairs and in the grass before us, my arias were, well, truncated. And there were no stage lights; Sarastro spoke his final words into dusk, which added a hint of unanticipated irony. But the overall effect was magical, both for the audience (so my mother said) and for us. It was my introduction to Mozart and to opera. My parents found a recording of selections for me when I came home that summer, and I got to hear the Queen of the Night’s arias unabridged, sung by Cristina Deutekom, whose coloratura was extraordinary. The magic of that experience has never left me.

While the instrumentalists warmed up on the Symphony Hall stage, an immersion of color was developing. Bird puppets in island parrot hues perched atop the decoratively carved tuning heads of the double-basses. An array of youth orchestra members scattered in, wearing florescent boas and complementary jewel-toned shirts, ending with the entrance of the first violinist in a wash of chartreuse. Conductor Federico Cortese’s jacket remained hanging on the podium, adorned with turquoise and teal feathers complementing his deep-sea-blue vest and knickers, which were elegantly accessorized by his high black boots. The cream-painted hall with the Greek and Roman statues and rococo gilded proscenium arch, as an 18th-century stage for the colorful festivities;  the orchestra in full attendance formed a fruitful flock and prophetic harkening to Papageno and Papagena’s future offspring.

The overture began sweetly, crisply taking flight into its staccato allegro fugue, giving a fine foretaste of Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra’s excellent work as a tight, supportive ensemble that knew how to make Mozart’s playful score twinkle.  Sitting among the youth were a scattering of Boston Symphony Orchestra mentors in collaboration with these fine, young musicians.  Some of the perhaps more brilliant orchestral segments, however, were cut in this production to make way for comedic dialogue.  This particular adaptation was specifically for kids.  Cortese mentioned in the program notes that we usually think of Mozart as a child prodigy, but at this time in his life, he was a father – and was delighted to see his seven year-old son Karl’s captivation with his opera

As the music unfolded, a projected black-and-white version of the hand-sketched logo slowly filled with color, first washing the subject matter and then fully processing an indigo background of moon and stars. Each scene similarly had its own projected sketch, beginning black and white then undergoing the same color fill with the unfolding of each aria. Elles Gianocostas was the whimsical artist.

Tamino, with the complexion of a sun-kissed Egyptian and dressed regally in Baroque shades of butter and cream, entered from the back of the hall, singing in powerful English. He darted down the aisle chased by a green-satin Chinese dragon. Three brightly colored mezzos (Isabella Dawis, Claire Shepro, Julia Cavallaro) dressed as 18th-century boys and would remain as such but sang in the capacity of the three Genii / Ladies of the Night. They were a joy to watch as they brought in large, brightly colored bird puppets on tall flexible sticks that bowed, causing the wings to flap, diving overhead. The birds were made to fly about the studio as Papageno entered in a dramatic chartreuse-feathered headdress, accompanied by a young piccolo player with a wooden birdcage strapped to his back.

Director and writer/adapter Bill Barclay, hiding in the dragon’s head, took off the headpiece, thus dispatching the dragon, and proceeded to serve in his modernly conceived speaking role as Narrator. He was dressed and coiffed like Jimmy Fallon and his comedic bits were full of modern references, including calling Tamino “Nintendo” and dubious use of “Dude.” Later on it was a bit puzzling that Barclay appeared in full black and white harlequin foolery, but the change was certainly more visually fitting to the rest of the production as the story progressed. Strong comedic actor Kyle Albertson was well-cast as Papageno, his banter with Barclay keenly entertaining the audience.

He and Norman Shankle as Tamino were powerful singers with brilliant diction, which had to have made audio engineer Steve Colby’s job extra challenging, as all singers were carefully body-miked. Having just one of them standing next to you would be enough to buzz your eardrum, so Colby’s ability to balance sound between singer and orchestra from anywhere in the building without feedback was most impressive. Also remarkable was how the orchestra onstage, and the singers offstage performing physically demanding antics from various points in the building with the conductor’s back to them, were able to keep so rhythmically together.

As Queen of the Night, Sylvia Lee was an unearthly goddess, her lyricism and coloratura clear, powerful, sweet (not the least shrill): vocally stunning. In moving with a geisha’s grace and beauty, everything about her visual appearance was breathtaking while also otherworldly. She wore a long white wig that added to the luna-ethereality, her dress bringing to my mind the Blue Fairy in Disney’s Pinocchio, with green and blue added, horizontal atmospheric textures in her skirt’s taffeta underlayer, like rings around a planet. Above her head was a moon-disc crown embedded with battery-lit stars. As she sang, the three “boys” held up stars on poles that orbited around her silvery beauty as the stage was flooded in blue and white light.

As the queen’s daughter, Pamina, sung by Anya Matanovič, was equally spectacular, her voice of the same clear, lyrically expressive power and timbral sweetness. And her beauty was absolute, fulfilling every girly girl’s princess fantasy. This dress was a frothy Empire gown that glowed white in the moonlight of the queen but in the daylight of Sarastro’s kingdom reflected subtle summery chartreuse hues. Pamina’s tiara sparkled in the light of both.

Monostatos, sung by Peter Tantsits, was comically lecherous, with stuffed derriere and belly and 18th-century-gentleman’s attire topped off by a spiked white wig like something out of David Lynch’s Dune. His stage presence was notable and his patter-singing energetic, but sometimes the characterization got away from him, racing ahead of tempo, for which the conductor had to adjust. The orchestra followed flexibly and seamlessly.

Sara Heaton’s Papagena charmed, and her peasant dress and singing would have served to make her an equally charming Zerlina. During this child-friendliest duet of the opera, the hand puppets resting on the double-basses were brought out to play, representing at least four Papagenos and three Papagenas. I myself continue to entertain the belief that every orchestra member in this production is in spirit a descendent of the busy couple.

Grigory Soloviov sang Sarastro with a voice and physical stature that were as deep, stately, and golden as the Queen of the Night was ethereal, graceful, and silvery. Of glittery golden hue from head to toe including face makeup, he delivered full and warm bass notes, and his stature towered regally over all. The disc worn upon his head was amusingly adorned with gold-painted doilies, achieving the distant effect of reflecting coins in a halo, to emulate the golden orb of the sun. Soloviov’s thick accent (Russian?) compromised his English pronuinciation more than the others but lent him a certain Schwarzeneggerian charm.

Opera buffs might quibble with the unkind cuts, but the arias and story are there, and the added dialogue did make the story accessible to kids. Certain elements were softened. Pamina never tried to use her dagger to commit suicide, and Sarastro reassured her that the Queen of the Night was a lonely, controlling empty-nester who, instead of being swallowed up by the earth, Sarastro eventually manages to persuade to submit to his magnanimous rule and orbit around him as the moon to the sun.

One prop gag must be affectionately called out. The most central prop, the title of the opera in the most sophisticated of productions, was a plastic Yamaha soprano recorder with the mouthpiece twisted off, a magic flute represented by the most common of childhood musical instruments. Brown and Baroque with cream trim, it went with Tamino’s outfit nicely.

Strong recognition must be reserved for Kathleen Doyle’s costumes, puppetry, and makeup, supported beautifully by Mark Rawson’s lighting. Doyle’s ability to create a visual world that captures and then satisfies children’s sense of wonder, color and fantasy alike, was essential to the success of this fine production.

BYSO and BSO Musicians perform during the BSO Family Concert- Mozart’s The Magic Flute, at Symphony Hall on March 30, 2014, Conducted by BYSO Music Director, Federico Cortese, Directed by Bill Barclay and Costumes, Puppetry and Make-Up Design by Katheleen Doyle. (Stu Rosner photo)

BYSO and BSO Musicians perform during the BSO Family Concert- Mozart’s The Magic Flute, at Symphony Hall on March 30, 2014, Conducted by BYSO Music Director, Federico Cortese, Directed by Bill Barclay and Costumes, Puppetry and Make-Up Design by Katheleen Doyle. (Stu Rosner photo)

Janine Wanée holds a BM from USC, an MM from BU, and professional certificates from the BU Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

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