Harvard College Opera’s all-student production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, (The Magic Flute), modern without being mod, and even politically correctified (the role of Monostatos, for instance, is no longer “ein Mohr” [Moor]), retains Mozart’s inevitable mix of serious and delightful. The singing and speaking, all in German, came across in well-honed accents during Friday’s opening night. Of course, one has to accept the absurdities and dramatic premises of Schikaneder’s bifurcated libretto, and the Egyptian ponderousness connected with Mozart’s Freemasonry that once challenged ecclesiastical authority.
By some other authority, the no. 11 duet, “Bewahret euch vor Weibertücken” (Beware of feminine wiles) was cut, perhaps for anti-misogynist reasons; I can’t imagine how even the most PC Mozartian liberationist, though, could take offense.
Agassiz Theater, hardly an opera house, places the orchestra perforce at floor level, limiting the audibility of the singers, and a unit set stood in place for all the scenes of both acts, with a hexagonal-prism motif for columnar ruins scattered about the stage; a six-foot-diameter ring in the center like a Stargate, changed color from scene to scene or action to action. Costumes mixed modern and classical: the Three Ladies appeared in mod black short skirts, the Three Spirits (the libretto calls for Genien) materialized in graceful white, Papageno sported a feathered sweater, and Tamino wore khaki trousers, and shirt and tie with vest.
I took note of five singers from last year’s production. As Tamino, Samuel Rosner showed outstanding qualities both as a singer and as a relaxed but thoroughly persuasive actor; James Rose projected an effectively villainous Monostatos with clarity; and Alexander Chen, a tall and imposing stage presence made a fine Priest in the Temple of Wisdom with strong, round baritone tone. Henrique Neves sang and acted effectively as Papageno in this comic role. Luke Minton proved mostly convincing Sarastro, though his pleasant baritone lacked the necessary power in the bottom register. Among the women, Jahnavi Rao as Pamina, in a plain blue gown, proved the most assured and handsomest voice of the evening; no listener could fail to be affected by the fine expression of her “Ach, ich fühl’s.” Alina Dong possessed fine tones in the minor role of Papagena, and her duet with her beloved Papageno got well-deserved chuckles. Natalie Choo, who impersonated last year’s delightfully unpleasant Fairy Godmother, played Mozart’s Queen of the Night. In the slower and more expressive sections of her two arias, she resorted to excessively wide vibrato, but she cut loose perfectly in the coloratura sections with their devilish high notes; and in this difficult role, which Mozart and Schikaneder chose to alter completely between the two acts, she embodied, as many actresses fail to do, Mozart’s effective transformation of the Queen into a comic heroine.
Benjamin P. Wenzelberg (who conducted last year’s Cendrillon and sang Orlovsky in Fledermaus the year before) goes from strength to strength in his significant commitment to opera at Harvard. His strong, alert, and well-tuned orchestra (normal paired winds, and lacking only second and third trombones; strings 4-3-3-4-2), maintained poise for tempo changes and balance adjustments with the singers; the few missed notes hardly mattered (one needs to recognize the particular difficulty of high horn notes in this work). I thought the tempo of the Overture rather too fast — one likes to take time to smell the flowers in this light-hearted piece — and the chorale prelude in Act II with the two Men in Black Armor went definitely too fast for Adagio. But these small objections aside, we heard a very worthy orchestral complement.
Hats off as well to Madeleine Snow, stage director, and Ava Hampton, stage manager, for a visually satisfying show. A special congratulation is due for the really effective and convincing stage management, which included some interesting choreography (by Laura Coe, one of the dancers) and very lively dancing. One of the dancers appeared as the serpent (bösartige Schlange) in the very first scene, and gyrated in a nicely ophidian manner, and in the process of being slain by the Three Ladies while Tamino fainted, she crawled decorously offstage.
This well-ordered, respectful and respectable, musically and dramatically enriching traversal—nonprofessional but in no way amateurish—is well worth seeing and hearing. The run continues on February 2nd, 7th , 8th, and 9th.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.