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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Opera Review: Between Sun and Moon

The Manhattan School of Music mounts Die Zauberflöte.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Queen of the Night by Erté.
Image by Erté © the estate of the artist.
Mozart's Die Zauberflöte is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, but staging  successful performance of it remains elusive. This Wednesday night, it was the Manhattan School of Music that accepted the challenge of staging the singspiel in a new production by director and dramaturge Jay Lesenger, imported to the conservatory following successful performances in the Midwest.

Mr. Lesenger's staging, sung in German with the director's own newly updated spoken dialogue performed in English, attempted to walk the tightrope between technically challenging opera arias, music-hall comedy and an essentially serious plot chronicling the initiation of two young lovers into a mysterious order of priests. Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schickeneder (who also created the role of the bird-catcher Papageno for himself to play) were more preoccupied with symbolism than character, meaning that singers cast as Tamino and Pamina find themselves with little to work with, dramatically.

That did not stop tenor Christopher Lilley and soprano Addie Hamilton from giving strong, carefully coached performances. Mr. Lilley has an earnest appeal and a sweet tone in "Die Bildnis", and one wonders what his light, pleasant tenor would make of a more substantial role. As Pamina, Ms. Hamilton sang a lovely "Bei mannern" duet with Papageno (Paull-Anthony Keightley) and brought real pathos to "Ach ich fuls," her anguished aria in the second act. This is Mozart the opera seria composer at play, with emotions that almost veer into parody but Ms. Hamilton caught the essentially serious nature of the part.

The soprano part everyone remembers in this show is the Queen of the Night, even though she's only onstage for ten minutes. Soprano Jana McIntyre did not disappoint, offering a dazzling upper register with pin-point control in "O zitt're nicht". The even more difficult "Die hölle rache" featured a flittering, glittering set of ringing high Fs. She ran out of breath trying to get down to her lower notes and the last utterance of the word "Rache" didn't appear, but this was an impressive run through this show-stopping numbert.

Bass Shi Li was a sonorous, fatherly Sarastro, although the director's decision to make his order a collection of white-collar workers in business suits (protected by rifle-toting sentries!) was a curious one. Mr. Li's Sarastro seemed more preoccupied with corporate recruiting and control over a dark netherworld, and his Priests (bass Scott Russell and tenor Joseph Sacchi) were pushy and abrasive with their charges in the second act. They also took the roles of the Two Men in Armor despite the sentries onstage. Tenor K'idar Miller was a very funny Monostatos, using physical comic skills to get through this distasteful role.

As Papageno, Mr. Keightley had a rubber face, flailing limbs and an Australian accent. All these physical attributes made him well-suited to the comic birdcatcher, the naturmensch who rejects life in the priesthood for wine, a perfect mate and eventually, lots of little fledglings. Mr. Keightley's delivery of Papageno's simple songs had considerable charm, and his three scenes with a decidedly rebellious electronic box of "magic bells" provided the evening with its best physical comedy. His Papagena was Carina DiGianfilippo, shrill and (intentionally) unappealing until she transformed into the girl of his dreams.

Admittedly it is difficult to balance the music-hall shtick of Papageno with the more serious central plot. Mozart and Schickeneder were creating a new kind of entertainment, melding the elevated and popular, the sacred and the profane. Scenery designer Steven Capone set the action in a dark, heptagonal tunnel, with gold and silver discs representing the conflict of Sarastro's sun-worshiping order with the dark Queen of the Night and a suggestion of '80s-era video-game technology. (The dragon in the opening scene, always problematic for directors, was a cool robot.) In the final chorus, the tunnel lit itself with LEDs.

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