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.
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.
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.