New Jersey Opera Theater’s “Zauberfloete” (“The Magic Flute”) is an uplifting experience — something like taking in your favorite view on a day when the weather is perfect. On opening night, Friday, July 13, the NJOT production brought an upbeat mood to an audience that floated away from McCarter’s Berlind Theater with Mozart’s irresistible music in their ears.
The ability of NJOT’s “Flute” to enchant depends on impeccable musicianship, both among vocalists and instrumentalists, and on an imaginative design team. Absent of scenery, the stage is a shifting abstraction of moving vertical panels. Mono-colored projections of trees and doorways, invite the audience to provide scenic details from their own sense of fantasy, and to become part of the collaboration. Mikiko Suzuki McAdams was responsible for set design. Her austerity contrasted with the fully worked-out detail of Patricia A. Hibbert’s costumes. Scott Altman, Artistic Director of NJOT directed the production.
In “Flute” Mozart blends a fairy tale allegory of good and evil with political commentary. In this telling, for which Emanuel Schikaneder was the librettist, good and evil are not immediately identifiable. Our sympathies go out at first to the Queen of the Night, who turns out to be evil. Her daughter Pamina, is the captive of Sarastro, who turns out to be good.
A man of the Enlightenment, Mozart adds his advocacy of social equality to the fairy story, and goes public with the paraphernalia of free masonry, which was considered subversive in his corner of the 18th century. High priest Sarastro, in Enlightenment mode, observes, about Tamino, “He is a Prince. More than that, he is a man.”
The opera was sung in German whose translation appeared in supertitles. The considerable dialogue was in English. Altman’s choice of a dual-language approach was a happy one. The original fusion of German text and music remained intact, and the English dialogue was accessible.
Conductor Brent McMunn established the effervescent musical mood from the first notes of the overture and maintained the musical momentum throughout the production. With the curtain down for the overture, McMunn gave his instrumentalists a chance to present Mozart’s 18th century craftsmanship with contemporary virtuosity. The darkness helped the audience listen without distraction. McMunn’s skillful handling of silences brought out the lightness of the composer’s conception. Nimble violins scampered and similarly inclined woodwinds joined in. Bassoons bubbled. Brasses were incisive. And tympani anchored the proceedings.
In a context of high-level singing, some vocalists were outstanding. Kisma Jordan brought vitality to the role of Pamina. The authority of her rich, warm voice made the princess a compelling character. Colleen Daly as her mother, the evil Queen of the Night, brought an icy clarity to her two soaring solo arias. Her accurate musical line made her coloratura voice an almost-instrumental companion to the flute that accompanied her at the top if its range for the second act aria. Matthew Curran, as Sarastro, demonstrated that exactly at the point where his voice reached a level which seemed to be the bottom of his range, he was able to get still lower. His earnest portrayal of an apparent tyrant, unmasked as a high priest of wisdom, truth, and virtue, had a winning simplicity.
Peter Couchman as Papageno revealed the bird-catcher as an undisciplined free spirit with charismatic ebullience. “Wisdom is not my thing,” he declares. “I’m just a child of nature.” Brightly dressed in colored feathers, Couchman took advantage of problems with his props on opening night to improvise. When the bottle of wine intended for him fell to the ground from its table, he ad-libbed, “I hope it’s not carbonated.” When the handle fell off the magic bells which would help him vanquish opponents, he kept their magic functioning by shaking and pounding them. Conductor McMunn applauded at the end of the scene.
The aristocratic Three Ladies who present Tamino with a magic flute and Papageno with magic bells acted as a unified musical and dramatic ensemble. They are Emily Ross-Johnson, C. Lidsey Polin, and Ashly E. Evans. Without explanation, they were shadowed by three lithe young dancers from American Repertory Ballet, ladies in waiting, who gracefully mimed their movements: Katie McGettigan, Sasha Mesaros, and Chelsea Ann Pebenito.
NJOT took advantage of the presence of American Repertory Ballet, also, by casting as assistant priests, three dancers who tended small illuminated pyramids: Eric Ham, Malcolm Newman, and Kohei Nogi. Three dancers, in addition, played forest animals: Laura Holton, Juliet Martone, and Rose Taylor.
The guiding Three Spirits, Maggie Finnegan, Cindy Byunghye Choi, and Glorivy Arroyo, clad in white, and coiffed with white sparkling hair, formed a tight ensemble. Traditionally the Spirits are played by boys, but the American Boychoir has dispersed for the summer.
Meanwhile, in Princeton, performances for NJOT’s first weekend of performances were sold out. The repertoire includes Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” and Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette.” The season ends on Sunday, July 29. The Magic Flute, New Jersey Opera Theater, Berlind Theater at McCarter, Princeton, 609-258-2787. www.njot.org. $15-$55.