by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
UW SCHOOL OF MUSIC
THE MAGIC FLUTE
Die Zauberflöte or The Magic Flute is probably Mozart's most beloved opera. Though his collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo DaPonte produced his most polished works - Don Giovanni, Così fan tutti, and Le nozze di Figaro - The Magic Flute is not only the most tuneful of the twenty-two musical dramas he wrote, but the most fantastical, funny, and heartfelt. It has been in constant performance since its premiere in 1791, and even today is the third-most performed opera in the world.
Why the love? Because of all his twenty-two musical dramas, The Magic Flute is the only one that was not commissioned by kings and aristocrats to entertain the nobility. Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, wrote this work for the ordinary theater-going public in Vienna who liked fairy tales, scary monsters, silly jokes and happy endings. They also liked to see hard work rewarded, good triumph over evil, and love blossom for the high-born as well as the lowly. The Magic Flute has it all - and on top of that, it celebrates love and marriage as the greatest joys in life and the source of wisdom and virtue. By watching the hero, Tamino, and the scapegrace birdcatcher, Papageno, find true love by fighting monsters, withstanding magical trials, and rescuing the princess Pamina from evil forces, you are meant to go away humming its catchy tunes and feeling good about yourself, no matter your condition in life. Like all good fairy tales, it makes you feel hopeful and empowered to face your own trials. The Magic Flute is the Nutcracker of opera - so popular in its charm and good will that it's a slam-dunk for the opera company or music group that produces it.
What a great choice, then, for the collaboration of renowned, Grammy-winning Pacific MusicWorks and the faculty and students of the University of Washington School of Music. After the great success of Pacific MusicWork's Semele last year - a much tougher sell to the general public than Mozart's crowd-pleaser - I was not alone in my eager anticipation of a wonderful evening, especially since Seattle audiences have not had a chance to see The Magic Flute fully produced since Seattle Opera's delightful production in 2011.
And, musically speaking, it was all any music-lover could wish for. Conductor Stubbs led his orchestra of thirty-eight - an even balance between Pacific MusicWorks players and UW music students - in a round, rich, lively account of Mozart's familiar music, made warmer by the addition of thematic interludes played by the woodwinds to cover frequent scene changes. I loved the rustic, reedy sound of these simple tunes being brought forward from the larger context of the opera to be considered in peace, as it were, while the curtain was down and we sat, undistracted, in the dark.
When the lights were up and the action was on, the singers themselves gave fine accounts of their characters, each with arias or duets that are justly cherished for their melodious plucking of the heartstrings. My favorite voice of the evening belonged to Mary Feminear, singing Pamina. Though directed to play the role in a more dashing and modern way than is traditional, Miss Feminear managed to sing without irony, and to use her full, easy voice to give 'Ach, ich fühl's' the plaintive quality of lost love that makes it so memorable, and to blend her lovely, powerful soprano with Geoffrey Penar's baritone in the wistful duet in praise of 'mann und weib,' man and wife, or love at its best. Ross Hauk, Seattle's favorite tenor, played the prince Tamino - in this production a yuppie master-of-the-universe type - with the dash and energy that befits a hero on a quest. His character, however, was overshadowed by his sidekick, Papageno, who was presented as a dumpster-diving, joke-cracking homeless guy living under a freeway.
This updating of the setting was an intriguing idea - I'm a big fan of experimentation with time periods because real insight can come with the tension between an early text and a contemporary or alternative setting. Hamlet in the Civil War; Carmen in the barrio; Don Quixote in the lunatic asylum; Tristan und Isolde in outer space - bring it on! Experimentation refreshes opera in the same way it refreshes Shakespeare. Since The Magic Flute is a Singspiel ('sing-talk') - meaning that the recitatives between songs are spoken instead of sung - the text can be easily re-translated or updated to reflect a change in setting without messing with the arias, duets and choruses.
Playwright Karen Hartman's re-visioning of The Magic Flute to the urban present offered lots of opportunities to see the characters in a new light. But though it was fun to see the monster in Act I represented as a gang of toughs and the three ladies as goth-girls, she missed an opportunity by leaving out the fierce animals that Tamino tames with his magic flute. How this moment is handled is always one of the hallmarks of a production - from dancers in tiger suits to Julie Taymor's giant bear puppets - yet this production ignored the animals all together. You and I know there are animals in the asphalt jungle worthy of taming: rats, mangy dogs, feral cats, even scavenging raccoons. Heck, she could have had a gang of panhandlers drop their cardboard signs and dance to the music! But this oversight is not my main complaint with Hartman's work.
Herein is my major complaint with this production: Karen Hartman re-wrote the good guy, Sarastro, into a bad guy, rendering all of his scenes into ambiguous moral conundrums and all of his arias to love and virtue into heavy irony. Though the role was sung ably by Colin Ramsey, he was directed into behaviors so at odds with the texts he was singing that it was almost impossible for him to represent a coherent idea in the schizoid swing of values from one scene to the next. This Sarastro is cruel and sexist, segregating the women and encircling himself with yes-men, then singing about tolerance and brotherly love. The addition of a pointless and unmotivated feminist pantomime in the last moment of the finale does nothing to rescue Hartman's misconceived adaptation. She either has a basic misunderstanding of the opera or she has no interest in the opera's message.
Goofy as the libretto sometimes is - with three magical women popping up here and three magical boys popping up there, sudden appearances of a monster and wild animals, a gang of horny palace guards chasing a baffled princess, and a weirdly shape-shifting Queen of the Night - The Magic Flute still has a very explicit moral center. The text clearly claims that through patience in the face of suffering mankind will achieve a higher state of virtue, one worthy of love with a partner, leading to communal love that elevates society. This theme makes Sarastro the voice of reason, Tamino the forthright youth seeking his calling, and Papageno the oafish lout who is elevated to finer values by love and family.
As corny as this may seem to a contemporary writer like Hartman, it is still Mozart and Schikaneder's narrative and the purpose of the opera. You can mess with every aspect of the language, costume, setting, movement, even the tone. But if you so distort the narrative as to make it cynical and ironic when it is written to be sincere and direct, then the inherent sweetness and charm of the opera is made muddy and confusing. Audiences from 1791 through 2015 have loved this opera not only for its beautiful music and comic subplot, but for its deep sense of optimism. Yet in this production that optimism is replaced with misanthropic humor that leaves the audience dissatisfied.
A moment that illustrates this cynicism comes toward the end, during the famous duet between Papageno and Papagena - two ordinary people (in this production they are street people) who have finally come together because Papageno, in his bumbling way, has gotten a pass from Sarastro and been awarded with true love. In every production of The Magic Flute I've ever seen this duet is a culminating moment of humor and joy, in which the couple plans to have lots of little 'papagenos' and 'papagenas.' Sometimes this imaginary future family is acted out between the couple with hugs and kisses, and other times the little 'papageni' are represented by real children who pop out from behind bushes or scrims or cabbage leaves to show the exuberant abundance of love that the song embodies. Seattle Opera's production of The Magic Flute uses this tradition of the 'papageni,' with children in stair-step sizes emerging in such a cheerful eruption that the audience roars with laughter and delight. In this production, however, Papagena leaps into the dumpster and gives her true love, Papageno, the finger - a gesture so unexpected and ugly that there was a gasp in the audience on the evening I attended. I got the joke - Papageno is a birdcatcher and his girlfriend gave him the 'bird' - but even if the mostly-over-fifty audience eventually worked it out, it's a supercilious gesture made even worse by 'papageni' in the form of broken dolls and doll parts that are thrown out of the dumpster as they sing about future children, now ironically in the face of disembodied arms, legs and heads. Papageno makes matters worse by stomping on the dolls as he joins Papagena in the dumpster. If any behavior could be less joyous and familial I can't think of what it would be.
As I was leaving Meany Hall I listened to the comments of audience members as they gave credit to the musicians, the performers, and some aspects of the humor and settings. But one woman in the elevator summed it up for me when she said sadly, 'They changed it too much.' She wasn't talking about the music, played with superb integrity and style by Pacific MusicWorks and their UW student colleagues, nor was she talking about the fine performances by an array of talented singers. It was the sardonic 'text adaptation' by Karen Hartman that undermined what might otherwise have been an intriguing exploration of The Magic Flute in the urban jungle.
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