rvw: Bewitching 'Magic Flute' at Lyric

Like Shakespeare and Disney, Mozart operas always manage to walk the line between high-brow sophistication and juvenile comedy. The Magic Flute is a prime example. A fairy tale of a plot, the opera imparts wisdom and noble truths while tickling the funny bone of young and old.

Summary: feminine irrationality is the darkness into which must be shone the bright light of rationality, detached and masculine. Hate not, haters. What must have seemed in earnest at the time now comes across as quaint and old-fashioned.

There’s more to this opera than pretty voices. For one, there’s the set. Freed from the burden of realism, the surreal set of the forest was reminiscent of Fraggle Rock, the Queen of the Night’s realm was like an infinity mirror, and the temple of rationality was, well, like a temple of rationality… but not without its own magic.

Among the singers, I was most entranced by Nicole Cabell as Pamina. She describes the role as ideal: “You can sing softly or more dramatically without ever being overwhelmed by the orchestra.” The sense of expressive freedom was palpable; Cabell made it seem easy as she drew on a diverse palette of colors, painting a real picture of human suffering amid the fantastical chaos.

Stéphane Degout was not the Papageno I had in mind. He seemed almost too regal—his voice to complex, operatic—to be the sylvan simpleton. His opening song—not an aria but a song—is a folk song and loses something underneath blankets of vibrato. Throughout the performance, however, he convinced me. As the primary comedic instigator, he endears himself to the audience, primarily in the 2nd act. When the woodsy bird-collector is forced to accompany the heroic Tamino on his trials, he becomes an Costello to Tamino’s Abbott, feigning courage while quaking in his boots. The humor goes beyond what is explicitly in the score, effectively keeping it light, grounded, while the humorless Tamino endeavors to save the world from irrationality.

Vocally, Mr. Degout pleased the ear but often seemed to rush ahead of the beat—completely out of the laid back character of Papageno—particularly in Der Vogelfänger.

Charles Castronovo was an apt Tamino. Supposedly the hero, however, he never convinced me to like his character.

Sarastro was different than expected as well. Günther Groisböck as the high priest of the temple of rationality showed a surprising amount of emotion, particularly anger and frustration in his first appearance. He also seemed, somehow, arrogant—like a high school football star or Captain Hammer. He needs to remember that he’s merely a priest and not a god—the medium and not the message. Good singing tho.

Audrey Luna debuted with the Lyric as the Queen of the Night, a devilishly difficult coloratura role that Mozart wrote for his sister-in-law. While the set suggested “queen” and “night”, Ms. Luna only implied night. She wore a goofy crown of lights—pastel purples and pinks—and her make up suggested rebellious goth punk rather than fearsome queen. A slight woman, the costume failed to disguise her youth and lack of regality. Vocally, I found it curious that her timbre changed so dramatically when she went from “regular” singing to “pyrotechnic coloratura” singing, generally making it seem difficult.

The Magic Flute is an undisputed classic and is in town at the Lyric through the end of January. Lyric’s production is not as undisputedly successful as the score but is thoroughly enjoyable—a balance of light and dark, gravity and levity. Unabashedly Recommended.

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