Arts opera review

An American version of The Magic Flute

Boston Lyric Opera brings the magic of Mozart’s music into the 21st century

The Magic Flute

Boston Lyric Opera

Citi Performing Arts Center

Shubert Theatre

Through Sunday October 13, 2013

Imagine Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder enlisting the help of a contemporary dramaturg to pitch their singspiel The Magic Flute to the American public. This unlikely premise was exactly what Boston Lyric Opera was going for with their world premiere of a new English adaptation of Mozart’s famous opera. Bolder than most, the new production featured a more comprehensive backstory, altered geographic setting, clearer symbolism, and delightful English lyrics. The stage décor was enchanting, the costumes eye-catching, and the singing breathtaking. 222 years after its premiere, Mozart’s opera sounds incredibly fresh in this ingenious reimagining, delivering its potent mix of jovial humor and nuggets of wisdom with a renewed vitality, and a surprising up-to-date relevance. Attending the BLO’s production of The Magic Flute made for a spectacular night at the opera, at once entertaining and inspiring.

The opera’s original premise is simple; it unfolds as an allegory opposing the forces of the night — led by the Queen of the Night — against the forces of the day — led by Sarastro. Tamino, the protagonist, is on his heroic quest to save the princess Pamina from the evil agent Monostatos. Tamino’s side kick, Papageno, is on his own quest to find a wife, which he eventually does, in Papagena. The opera also abounds with freemasonic elements and themes, such as the obsession with the number three (considered magical), the journey of initiation, and trials of the elements, as well as explicit advertising of the freemasons’ ideals and creed.

The new version of the opera expertly weaves all these elements in with several brand new ones. The setting is moved from the original ancient Egypt to a fresher, more American, but equally mystic ancient Mayan Mexico. A completely new backstory is added, featuring four university students on an exploratory trip to Mayan ruins in modern day Yucatan. When one of them is bitten by a snake, he plunges into a venom-induced hallucination that incorporates both the mystical Mayan setting and his classmates, and recreates the original Magic Flute story. Introducing the whole allegory as a dream or hallucination is very compelling; the additional story layer suggests that the protagonists are ultimately common folk, while the opera is only a mystical reflection of their day-to-day trials and tribulations.

One of the key strengths of BLO’s production of The Magic Flute is the English translation and adaptation. The creative team, composed of Leon Major, John Conklin, and Kelley Rourke, delivers a well-balanced, ingenious adaptation that unfolds naturally in English, while retaining both the poise and the humorous overtones of the original German text. While the gist of the original text is maintained, the freer translation allows for excellent rhyming and fluidity in the lyrics, which establishes a close connection with the audience. Additionally, the lyrics are projected, which helps the audience appreciate the delectable quality of the translation even more.

Staging is another noteworthy accomplishment. The set is constructed using independently moving rectangular frames, and is richly decorated with vividly colored props full of symbols reminiscent of Mayan civilization. The layered perspective is very appropriate, representing both the mystical labyrinth from which the protagonists are trying to escape, and the stages of initiation that Tamino and Papageno have to go through to prove themselves worthy of their counterparts. This set also afforded very smooth transitions between scenes, because a radically different set could be quickly achieved with relatively small set movements. The symbolism of the moon and the sun representing the night and the day was made abundantly clear, whenever necessary. This was also matched by the well-crafted costumes, which had a silver glitter for the night-aligned characters and a golden glitter for the day-aligned ones. One minor distraction among all these elements was the overly wrinkly texture of the sun disc prop, which seemed at times caricatured. Another was the Queen’s dress, which seemed too similar to the dresses of the three ladies, save for a longer feather in her hat. A more ornate costume, perhaps with a significantly larger headpiece, would have made the Queen stand out better from her underlings.

Mozart’s Magic Flute may tell an interesting story, but it is the music that transforms it into a timeless masterpiece. The intricate musical beauty of the opera, featuring lively arias, brilliant coloratura passages, tasteful orchestration, and a myriad of symbolic elements, is hard to resist. Under the baton of David Angus, the BLO orchestra delivered an excellent performance, which brought out the variety and crispness of the accompaniment figurations in Mozart’s music; it offered a bold musical presence when required, but could swiftly dissolve into a shimmering background whenever singers took center stage. The balance between orchestra and singers was also outstanding — due not only to Mozart’s masterful orchestration, but also to Mr. Angus’ deft conducting.

The singing — the main attraction of going to the opera — was the best part of the BLO’s production. Featuring an all-local cast, with many singers performing with the BLO for the first time, the operatic spectacle had an ebullient, youthful quality, and offered a smooth blending of superb singing and compelling acting. Tenor Zach Borichevsky, showcasing a precise, nuanced high-register singing and agile acting, delivered a convincing performance as the lead character Tamino. With her soulful and endearing singing, as well as her sleek stage presence, soprano Deborah Selig owned the role of Pamina. Baritone Andrew Garland was delightful and funny as Papageno, vividly expressing the character’s humor with his excellent acting and singing. Joining him for one exciting aria was soprano Chelsea Basler, as Papagena, who showcased her comedic talent and warm, mellifluous singing. Up-and-coming sensation soprano So Young Park drove the audience wild by portraying the Queen of the Night with lively acting and breathtaking singing dexterity. In each one of her fiendishly difficult arias, when she reached the stratospherically high notes, it felt like droplets of the sublime tingling one’s ears. At the opposite vocal range, bass David Cushing delivered an earthy, booming performance of Sarastro, showcasing an excellent vocal technique and nuance. Rounding out the cast, tenor Neal Ferreira vividly portrayed the lust-crazed villain Monostatos, making use of his alluring, well-projected singing voice and excellent theatrics.

While all the performances were outstanding, if I had to pick the least compelling one, it would have to be the three boys/guiding-spirits. While their tackle of Mozart’s grueling singing parts was commendable, their stage presence was often tentative. As guiding spirits, they often seemed in need of guidance themselves. Moreover, being in charge of carrying Tamino’s magic flute and Papageno’s magic bells (an interesting new concept, at least in theory), made them look even more confused and out of place.

A fresh repackaging of Mozart’s fantastic tale, now with a solid book, delightful English lyrics and outstanding singing and acting — the BLO’s production of The Magic Flute is a momentous artistic manifestation with a strong appeal to both opera aficionados and neophytes. If you have never seen The Magic Flute, this is probably your best introduction to this opera. If you have seen it, you’ll relish the freshness of this interpretation. Either way, you don’t want to miss out on this one.