November 11, 2013
By Mark Satola
A panorama of visual delights, and a catalog of dramatic invention, brought vivid life to Mozart's last and best-loved opera, “The Magic Flute,” staged last weekend at the Cleveland Institute of Music, in a production directed by CIM Opera Theater’s artistic director David Bamberger.
In truth, it never hurts to bring a little something extra to “The Magic Flute.” Mozart’s music is unassailable – has there ever been an opera quite like this, where every number is a hit tune? – but the libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder has enough holes in its dramatic house that drafts blow through a little too easily.
Bamberger and his team crafted a production that plugs the holes in various creative and appealing ways, in the process streamlining the often-static tale into a focused exploration of the opera’s consideration of romantic love in the context of Enlightenment philosophy.
Halfway through the overture, Bamberger has players onstage in street clothes, rummaging through a rack of fanciful costumes and doing something inexplicable with flashlights and a plastic trash can. It’s an ingenious “let's put on a show” gesture, but it also suggests that what is to follow is a show in a higher octave, a ritual allegory enacted for the enlightenment of the audience.
The business with the flashlights becomes clear when the trash can re-enters the action proper as the glaring head of the fearsome serpent pursuing Tamino through a rocky waste. In this case, the wasteland extends beyond the modest stage in Kulas Hall into the audience, as the monster, carried like a lion dance costume on Chinese New Year, swirls through on its way back to the stage.
David Brooks’ one-size-fits-all set, a multilevel platform with movable sections, is a fine solution to the problem of creating rocky wastes, forest groves, gardens, temples of ordeal and of the sun, and even pyramids on a single stage.
Rather than slow the action for scenery shifting, Brooks employs striking lighting effects to differentiate settings, reflecting the action and the music with a satisfying synesthesia of color and music.
As for the music, the redoubtable Harry Davidson led his singers and orchestra with a sure hand. Friday night's singers were uniformly fine, as we have come to expect from CIM.
David Fair was a heroic and ringing Prince Tamino, and Allyson Dezii was melting, both as a singer and an actress, as Pamina, his beloved. As Queen of the Night, Samantha Farmilant well conveyed both her character’s formidability and her bat-craziness, and earned some extra whoops from the audience, after the famous Act 2 aria, and at her curtain call. As the enigmatic Sarastro, bass I Sheng Huang brought sepulchral tones and dignity to the role.
The most vivid presence in the Friday night cast was Brian James Myer as the bird-catcher Papageno, prototype of the comic sidekick, and the character who gets the most funny business (Schickaneder wrote the role for himself, natch).
Dressed in an ill-fitting waistcoat, tight red jeans and a bright orange feathered ruff, Myer capers, grimaces and cuts up so well it’s easy to overlook his supple and expressive baritone voice.
Costumes by Alison Garrigan were colorful and lighthearted. The Queen of the Night’s three attendants were resplendent in regalia that seemed a hybrid of 1980s Cyndi Lauper and postmodern Goth. Most lovely were the briefly-seen oversize masks for the beasts tamed by Tamino's magic flute.
Garrigan’s costumes for Sarastro and his temple retinue underscored the ambiguity of Schickaneder's libretto. Clad in a rainbow of identically tailored uniforms that hint at Maoist fashion, the singers presented visually the conundrum of Sarastro.
Is he a good guy – working subtly behind the scenes to coax the characters into a state of enlightenment? Or is he a darker figure, committing plain crimes (for instance, kidnapping Pamina and leaving her in the less-than-tender care of the monstrous Monostatos) to proselytize for his own cult-like vision of enlightenment?
No production of “The Magic Flute” can answer these questions, of course. But Bamberger and company's presentation went far in suggesting that there is more to Mozart and Schickaneder's tuneful allegory than meets the ear – and for pure entertainment, it earned a top grade.