Corrections or additions?

This article review by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 4,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Opera Review: `The Magic Flute’

The Opera Festival of New Jersey’s "Magic

Flute,"

which opened this year’s summer season on Saturday, June 23, is a

production at odds with itself. As directed by Gina Lapinski, its

excellent musical qualities fail to be reflected in the misguided

visual offerings of designer John Coyne. Moreover, its presentation

in English (drawing translations from three separate stock sources)

is a double liability.

To be sure, this Mozart opera, now more than two centuries old,

presents

challenges. Still, it is such a marvel of deft musical writing,

delicately

poised ensembles, and fairy-tale atmosphere that its detracting

elements

can be discounted. The path to enjoying the opera consists in staying

calm in the face of Masonic allusions that so provoked the authorities

in the 1790s; ignoring the confusion that arises when good and evil

morph into their opposites; and ignoring the sexist dialogue that

still appears outrageous two centuries after it was conceived.

Yet Mozart’s musical ebullience came through generously in the OFNJ

opener. Performed by an ensemble possessed of excellent voices and

a refined sense of teamwork, the company delighted a full house at

Princeton’s McCarter Theater.

Almost all the principal performers turned in outstanding

performances.

Notable was Joseph Kaiser as the irrepressible bird catcher Papageno.

Comfortably combining a supple voice and supple acting he unaffectedly

communicated the openness and honesty of his character. Jacqueline

Venable as Pamina showed a remarkable talent for turning the princess

into a warm and emotional presence. Venable’s ability to convey love

and yearning was in the details as she, for example, lingered lovingly

on the second syllable of Tamino’s name in a triumph of subtlety;

particularly moving was her second act aria of despair. The balance

and musicality of the Papageno-Pamina duets was outstanding.

Justin Vickers as Prince Tamino was a musically accurate consort for

Venable’s Pamina, ardent and earnest. Lorraine Ernest (the ultimately

evil Queen of the Night) managed to reach all but one of her perilous

high notes. One of the peak moments of the evening came during her

second act aria, when supertitles were withheld and the full impact

of her precise singing reached the audience unimpeded. Kaiser,

Venable,

Vickers, and Ernest all made their OFNJ debuts at this "Magic

Flute" performance.

Not quite up to the ensemble standard was Stephen Humes as Sarastro,

whose initial menacing presence masks his goodness. Humes, also making

his OFNJ debut, was notably more wooden than the other principals

and his very lowest notes were not comfortably within his grasp.

Performers not specifically mentioned, like those singled out, also

handled their roles with spirit and individuality. The vocal ensembles

were in tune, transparent, and musically on target.

A happy visual-musical effect came in the casting of three women as

the three spirits. Although the roles are usually sung by boys, the

three small women who played them here, Suzanne Anderson, Ereni

Hrousis,

and Sage Lutton, were effectively graduated in size. Their clear

voices

made a balanced blend as they performed with the entertaining

precision

of children reciting by rote concepts that they didn’t quite

understand.

OFNJ music director Patrick Hansen conducted and saw to solid

instrumental

support for the company in general, though in the overture the

orchestra

repeatedly arrived at the second beats in a measure before the first

beat had settled down. Associate conductor Richard Tang Yuk will

conduct

performances on Friday, July 6, and Thursday, July 19.

The choice to present "The Magic Flute" in English, with

English

supertitles, raises the general question of departing from the

original

language of opera. Setting aside my taste for the original language,

with English titles, I have additional complaints regarding this

production.

The translation is no more than adequate, attributed only to the

publisher

G. Schirmer, rather than to a particular individual. Supertitles come

from Bayshore Opera Translations. And not only is the match between

singing and supertitles imperfect, but frequent inversions of ordinary

English speech made the supertitles stumble, rather than flow.

A particularly flagrant example was the supertitle

intended

to be read "Who by this law is led aright." In addition to

the tortured word order, the word "led" was erroneously

replaced

by the word "fed." Similarly uncaught was the use of the word

"gladness" in a supertitle when the word "sadness"

was sung. The spoken dialogue translation came from publisher Boosey

and Hawkes.

The biggest barrier to this production soaring were vital visual

aspects.

John Coyne’s sets were hard-edged geometric abstractions with minimal

detail. Perversely, their lack of clues about scale robbed the stage

of depth and intruded on the space of the auditorium. Furthermore,

the angularity of the scenic design was, to these eyes, at odds with

the roundedness of Mozart’s music.

Coyne’s imaginative fictional animals, on the other hand, were a

delight.

A lithe four-person serpent and four filmy oversized insects had a

visual lightness, emphasized by their movement. The appearance of

the playful bugs was greeted by laughter.

Other visual elements in the production were just plain silly. The

Queen’s three ladies wore frumpy wigs of harsh colors at war with

their dresses. Papageno had pitifully few feathers adorning his tan

costume, though his bill-backwards baseball cap provocatively joined

present-day dress to the 18th century. Sarastro and his minions,

champions

of light, wore dark blue gowns of a sleazy-looking fabric reminiscent

of last week’s high school graduations. The pink of Tamino and

Pamina’s

clothing was a low-impact color. Patricia Hibbert did the costume

design.

Missing were vivid visual representations of the trials by darkness,

fire, and water that Tamino undergoes to earn Pamina’s hand. Also

missing was any motivation for Papageno and Tamino’s random removal

and replacement of the black face-masks during the ordeal scenes.

An audio-described performance of the opera, intended to assist the

visually impaired, has been scheduled. For the enjoyment of this

production

knowing what is to be seen is not necessarily an asset. All audiences

might benefit by down-playing the visual aspects of the production

and concentrating primarily on the music.

— Elaine Strauss

The Magic Flute , Opera Festival of New Jersey,

McCarter

Theater, 609-258-2787. $22 to $82. Friday, July 6, 8 p.m.; Thursday,

July 19, 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, July 28, 8 p.m.


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