in: Reviews

April 16, 2016

Vocal Enchantment Abundant in This Flute

by

Nicholas Phan with the three ladies, Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, Mara Bonde and Emily Marosh

Nicholas Phan with the three ladies, Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, Mara Bonde and Emily Marvosh (Kathy Wittman photo)

One wonders how many visitors to the sold-out Jordan Hall came last night for Boston Baroque’s Magic Flute because, like me, they remembered the very successful, slightly staged Don Giovanni these forces produced some 30 years ago. And pleasures also abounded in this outing sufficiently to warrant our suggestion that you visit your local scalper for a seat Saturday night.

Mark Streshinsky’s staging for this production consisted mainly of (uncredited) morphing lighting effects on the reredos: at allusions to a radiant sun it colored gold—the ordeal of fire references induced the organ pipes to mottle with flames—bars appeared to suggest Pamina’s lockup—four radiating triangles of light on the sculptural frieze unfortunately suggested the German Iron Cross. Aside from Papageno’s choreographed delirium tremens, blocking was modest. Opening the back wall of the stage to permit entrances and exits and a small raised stage made for a great solution. Elegant costumes for the ladies provided juicy eye candy. The sole piece of stage furniture, the inevitable recamier for the kidnapped Pamina, was dutifully wheeled in and out repeatedly by Sarastro’s minions, who carefully set the brakes each time.

The show’s pious, hypothetical reconstruction of Mozart’s orchestral sound world mismatched mostly straight string playing with conventional modern opera singing. A dearth of inflection and phrasing from the strings hardly evoked the probably raucous practices in Schikaneder’s theater. I bet there was precious little philosophizing about performance practice there.

Which gets to the issue of how much singen and how much spielen should figure in this Singspiel. At the premiere, hoi polloi certainly understood what they were hearing in the Viennese vernacular, but does that mean that in order to resuscitate that experience or to attract new audiences we needed Jeremy Sams’s poorly coached wooden English dialog such as “Great stuff—my compliments to the chef” or “You win some and you lose some?” It went on like this, often inducing cringes. (If the goal was to recreate some of the buzz of the opera’s premier for modern ears, then hiring Mos Def to write an entirely new story and Cirque de Soleil to stage it might have been just the ticket; they might even have changed the worship of Isis and Osiris to ISIS versus the infidels.) The audience laughed aloud (not always appropriately) at the coyly colorful stuffed animals—especially the rabbit and the dragon which appeared to have come from Watership Down or Cunning Little Vixen; the beasts never menaced enough to need de-fanging through the agency of a magic glockenspiel, though.

Queen of the night (So Young Park) and Pamina (Leah Partridge)

Queen of the Night (So Young Park) and Pamina (Leah Partridge) (Kathy Wittman photo)

After some serious bouts of tuning, both overtures proved disappointing—the first because the strings had yet to warm up and the second because it sounded clipped and perfunctory rather than Masonically grave. When given the chance, the winds and brass projected clear enunciation and pungent colors and personalities. Who can forget the ominous forebodings from the bass trombone Brian Kay? Christopher Krueger cast a vivid spell as Tamino’s enchanted flutist, and no, we didn’t hear Papageno’s plastic bells on a stick—that would have been the resourceful Peter Sykes taking some great licks on a keyed glockenspiel built by Robin Jennings for John Eliot Gardiner’s Magic Flute production of some years back.

In this singers’ show, the arias, ensembles and choruses reliably brought us the Mozart we love.  Even though the orchestra was on stage rather than in a pit, it never covered the vocalists or forced them to strain, as has often happened with large modern orchestras in this space.

Papageno entered from the back of the house. As he paraded down the aisle singing, dancing and mugging, the orchestra and he had difficulty lining up. Even after he eventually mounted the stage, the coordination was imperfect. This must have been because for the most part the singers had their backs to the conductor. The video monitor on the stage apron showing Pearlman’s beat might have helped avoid more than a few other episodes of poor coordination—if anyone had looked at it. Andrew Garland sang the birdcatcher with handsome and virile tones, but his redneck, Gomer Pyle delivery of the dialogue often grated. His chemistry with his Papagena, the lustrous Sara Heaton was perfection; his “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” mos def will make it into the highlight reel.

The three ladies, Sonja DuToit Tengblad, Mara Bonde and Emily Marvosh, made gorgeous stage pictures and sounded just as they looked. Never the stars, these three characters nevertheless steal every scene in which they figure. So Young Park’s elegant, imposing Queen of the Night stopped the show twice with coloratura that was at once unusually warm and precisely produced. She found a nostalgic quality of lost love rather than harridan’s rage in her sexy, singular interpretation. Park already belongs on the world’s stage, though she needs more coaching in English dialog.

As Tamino Nicholas Phan brought dramatic yet honeyed, ardent declamation to a role which is sometimes whined. Though at times in the first act he betrayed some possible indisposition, he also produced hints of a Florestan in-the-making. His involvement in character transcended the camp dialogue much more successfully than most on stage. He could develop a major voice if he burnishes rather than strains it.

Leah Partridge brought a bright, forward sound to Pamina. Her phrasing wasn’t sumptuous, but her high-bred stage manner certainly served the character well except in the most melting moments. Her interactions with Monastatos would have been scarier if tenor Owen McIntosh hadn’t looked and sounded relentlessly downcast. He should begin as a menacing Moor (blacking-up is apparently a non-starter these days); the whimpering and mincing should not commence before Sarastro delivers comeuppance.

Adrew Garland as Papageno and Sarah Heaton as Papgena

Andrew Garland as Papageno and Sarah Heaton as Papagena (Kathy Wittman photo)

We could understand why votaries would follow the Sarastro of Gustav Andreassen. Immense of tone and commanding in stature, he embodied mellifluousness all the way down to something like a low E. He should be on guard for wobbling, though. He sounded 20 years younger when he was speaking.

As the Sprecher, priest and armored man bass Dana Whiteside had real problems inflecting the texts, though, along with second guard tenor Stefan Reed, he sang with commitment.

Ultimately one wonders about the ingredients in this gemischter Salat. The period-orchestra stylings, wooden dialogue, and slightness of staging did Mozart few favors. Yet all was forgiven during most of the fine, ardent singing which proved rarely less than extremely rewarding.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

4 Comments

  1. As an English teacher, your complex wording is often difficult to follow….always focus on simple yet direct.

    Comment by Faith Rubin — April 17, 2016 at 10:04 am

  2. Point taken, but that striking opening dangler, plus the unusual use of ‘yet’, make one worry for your grammar students.

    Comment by david moran — April 17, 2016 at 12:03 pm

  3. Again its better to be lucky than good. My good fortune brought me to Saturday nights performance and I and a sumptuous musical feast it was under the masterful baton of Martin Pearlman and the Incredible Boston Baroque Orchestra. I was catapulted back in time to witness this timeless masonic enlightening masterpiece. The singing and comedy were of a perfect mixture. Earthy vs. Enlightened without judgement. Mozart at his hilariously finest. All that was required of me was to show up and allow Musical Enlightenment to take place. My initiation was being captivated in my seat and all this Musical delightful experience made all the more human.

    Comment by Richard Riley — April 17, 2016 at 4:33 pm

  4. Reading Lee Eiseman’s review, I suspect this text reflects the experience of the performance of Friday, April 15, which I, too, attended. Due to fortunate circumstances, I was at Jordan Hall again for the second performance, on Saturday, April 16, which I wish Lee had been able to attend as well. Both musically and scenically, the second performance was indeed much better than the first, most splendidly celebrating both SING and SPIEL. Looking back, I would consider the Friday evening performance to be the dress rehearsal for Saturday night, and it is a pity indeed that there was no third (and even fourth) performance. On Friday, I felt compassion for Nicholas Phan during his very first singing moments: it seemed to me (correctly, as I heard from a friend of Nicholas after the performance) that he suffered from allergy (as fellow heyfever sufferer, I know how spring can turn in a nasty “Festspielzeit” – not pleasant at all, certainly not for the nasal cavity and throat of a professional singer, and indeed any human being, whose breathing and voice will inevitably strain under such dire conditions). The second information my friend shared on Friday night was that the backstage of Jordan Hall is rather dusty. Given the perilous financial state of the New England Conservatory, which, according to some, would do well to seek a partnership with a university right next door but thus far has refused to do so (for reasons unknown to me), I wonder if there is no budget left at all to clean up the back stage area when there is an ensemble of very fine singers around to perform? That is a shame, and, frankly, inexcusable and not an expression of appreciation for professional singers (I, for one, would blame this dustiness for the few moments of less than ideal singing on Friday night). As for Nicholas Phan being a Florestan-in-the-making, I fully agree with the reviewer, and take an even bolder step in saying he may also quite well be a Loge-in-the-making… But then we’d be talking 2039 or thereabouts – the Fiftieth Anniversary of Boston Baroque’s Magic Flute, with another generation of splendid singers, another musical director and another generation of instrumentalists, and, hopefully, with the same keyed glockenspiel, in a clean, financially stable, renovated and well-secured New England Conservatory and Jordan Hall… Finally, two asides: I have not heard anyone mention the German Iron Cross in reference to the Masonic Triangles projected on the ceiling above the stage. I did, however, need to take some time to discover that the rabbit, at its (bungled) entrance on Friday, turned out to be a kangaroo – on Saturday, this uncertainly was eliminated with utmost clarity. In my experience, I have fared very well by not going to opera productions on opening night, but preferably on the second, third, or fourth night, when the music and the production have become fully inhabited by all the performers (and those coordinating things backstage and elsewhere in the house). I would love to be among the living to witness Boston Baroque’s Fiftieth Magic Flute Anniversary Celebration, with, hopefully, five performances, each symbolizing a decade, even if I, like Titurel, would have to be carried into Jordan Hall in a coffin…:-)

    Comment by Edgar Brenninkmeyer — April 18, 2016 at 8:23 pm

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