08 February 2014
In the late eighteen century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart premiered his exhilarating and hilarious new opera, Die Zauberflöte, which continues to excite audiences today under its English name, The Magic Flute. When I taught kindergarten before law school, I taught a mini-lesson on opera, showcasing The Magic Flute. The look of delight as the children heard the soaring arias is a priceless gift of education for which everyone should experience. I experienced this similar joy and jubilation when I saw Boston Conservatory’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte). Conducted by 2013 My Theatre Award Nominee and Boston Conservatory’s Music Director of Opera Studies Andrew Altenbach, the show is “a semi-staged concert production” with outstanding stage direction by Johnathon Pape, the Director of Opera Studies at Boston Conservatory. Frankly, re-reading this caveat in the program made me laugh because they did not “semi-stage” this gem, but produced a fully-realized production with enough spectacle and charm to wow its audience into a standing ovation and multiple bows.
To begin, Mozart’s opera is silly. You need to know very little plot prior to attending, which is graciously appreciated when it is sung in its native German tongue with English subtitles. Pape’s subtitles are spot-on brilliant and offer a very clever translation and, dare I say, interpretation of the work. Additionally, despite being in the third row, I found their placement above the action to be perfect, and, sometimes, I would even stop reading and just enjoy the beautiful story-telling by these accomplished performers. The two-act opera begins with our hero, Prince Tamino, played with precision by Trevor Drury, narrowly escaping a hideous and mysterious and monstrous snake. I wish the production had given more context to this opening moment in the scope of the play, but I suppose if that’s one of my few criticism, then I should be thankful. We are introduced to three beautiful and stunning Ladies, decked in form-fitting dresses and brightly-colored wigs. These Three Ladies, played with clever characterization and gorgeous voices by Rebecca Richardson, Britt Brown, and Emma Sorenson, impressed me with their abilities to develop unique characters despite the text’s lack of assistance. Each of these actresses punctuated their moving lines of song with hints into their personality and relationship with the other Ladies. What emerged was an exciting scene, rich with context and story, which complemented the actresses’ gorgeous singing. Special accolades to the Lady in the Blue Wig (I think it would be the Third Lady, if I remember the score correctly, and, if so, then Emma Soreson) for her consistent use of facial expressions and use of her body to create striking stage pictures; at one moment, it took only the sharp contours of a hand on the hip with a rolled back to create a sultry and strong pose. It is these choices that accented the Ladies’ performances to a new level of performing talent.
And then we are introduced to the real hero of the night: Papageno, played with hilarious and bashful talent by Simon Dyer, a birdcatcher/birdman/lover-of-sorts. Papageno is one of Mozart’s foppish archetypes, and Dyer plays the role with such sincerity that you cannot help but love his whining, glee, and tribulations. Dyer plays silliness with a level of controlled camp that extracts all of the humor from Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder’s text while leaving the humanity and truth beyond Papageno. He makes so many smart choices throughout the production that it is hard to find one moment to highlight or even one moment to pinpoint as the time that I fell in love with him, but I would mention his hilarious turn with his hand-bells as a show-stopping number. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he steals the show with his dynamic performance.
With a sweep of a cape, the Queen of the Night enters the scene and Alessandra Gabbianelli makes her entrance, voice, presence, and name something to remember throughout, and after, the night’s performance. Unlike many of the Queens of the Night that I have seen and heard previously, Gabbianelli strikes a chord with her melodramatic interpretation of the “Hell Hath No Fury Like a [Mother] Scorned.” This “Mommy Dearest” is strong, wronged, and vengeful, and she uses her voice and cunning wiles to manipulate the men around her. Gabbianelli’s voice is clear and piercing, forming notes and sounds that stay with you after the performance. I enjoyed her first aria more than her second, surprisingly, considering that her second aria is much more famous (side note: I am sure parents would not have appreciated me playing clips of this second aria for kindergarteners, if the parents had known that the Queen of Night is begging her daughter to kill her husband for her mother). Skipping ahead, we are introduced to our second antagonist. I appreciated Pape’s clever direction (with some insight provided in the program) that he felt that the play offered no true “good” or “evil.” I recognized this interpretation when I was introduced to the charming Sarastro, played with poise and talent by Wesley Gentle. Gentle is a star who makes his Sarastro shine with the raise of an eyebrow, the brush of a hand, and the remarkable control over his bass voice. His understated execution of his role is in sharp contrast to Gabbianelli’s overdramatic Queen of Night which makes them perfect foils and each excellently performed. I wanted a clash of the Titans between them because boy, would their sounds and presence make for good entertainment, but perhaps another day.
Unfortunately, I found Pamina underwhelming. Played with beautiful execution by Marlen Saladin, the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Sarastro’s wife/prisoner, and Tamino’s love interest lacked a bit of the verve that I would have wanted, especially when I saw so many other strong female characters. Perhaps my inner feminism emerged when seeing her performance but I felt that Saladin succumbed to Mozart’s not-so-mildly misogynistic text. That said, her aria is heartbreakingly beautiful and haunting and she delivered a progressively stimulating performance. I did not expect the supporting ensemble to be so talented, particularly some of the men in the smaller ensemble roles. Their voices were polished and their delivery excellent to convey of the lines that may have served as mere plot devices in other, less-talented actors’ hands. While I did not care for the Three Spirits, I appreciated their work, but I found that their performances lacked some of the vitality that I found in the Three Ladies’ performances. For instance, I never understood the relationship among the Three Spirits, instead feeling like they portrayed three embodiments of the same personality. Nelson Bettencourt’s Monostatos grew on me, but he never felt like a realized character, despite his Caliban-like personality and some help from the text; that said, he had a wonderful tenor timbre for which I greatly appreciated. The end of the opera may be silly and quickly resolved, but, with the help of such a dynamic and committed cast, I enjoyed and followed the production through Mozart’s leaps and bounds towards a happy ending. Luckily, it ends with the show-stopping duet between Dyer’s Papageno and Evelyn Tsen’s Papagena which promises to be worth the admission of tickets alone for its humorous and (bizarrely) endearing qualities.
Pape does a stunning job of creating interesting stage action and pictures for the audience to follow this work, almost without need for accompanying subtitles. His actors infuse rich and purposeful movements to portray their wants, desires, and struggles throughout the performance, some with more success than others, but always at outstanding levels. For these reasons, I was shocked that they would call it “semi-staged” but perhaps they referred to the lackluster production elements. The lights were annoyingly distracting, but forgivable, especially considering the space (Seully Hall reads like a small town meeting rather than an auditorium for an opera performance, but Pape does an outstanding job of utilizing the space and Altenbach’s music swims over the hall, producing the perfect vibrations). The projections grew on me, but offered some jarringly inappropriate moments; for example, Tamino sings that he can tame wild animals, and, a la Microsoft Powerpoint’s “Fly In” function, graphics of various cuddly (and not so cuddly) animals appeared on the dual projections. However, other moments featured some wonderful “book-end” projections, completing the stage picture for the audience and perfectly transitioning the scenes.
Altenbach does a stunning job with the orchestra and the cast is well-rehearsed and riveting in their musicality. It is unsurprising why many consider Boston Conservatory the best of the best for music in Boston, especially for musical theatre and opera (quite a tall bid and large compliment when Boston also features New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, and Boston University, among others). This production of The Magic Flute reminds me why many of our nation’s most talented students choose to pursue degrees and other programs at Boston Conservatory, and why Boston (and other cities) continue to revere the graduates and performers from Boston Conservatory. Lead by the outstandingly talented and intelligent faculty such as Pape and Altenbach, the Boston Conservatory’s The Magic Flute is an accessible and largely talented production of the school’s finest for the Boston community to experience the joys of opera at an affordable price.