Before I can begin a discussion of The Magic Flute, which was performed last week at MCT, I must first offer my apologies to the second cast, whose performance I did not see. Under David Cody’s superb and thoughtful musical direction, I have no doubt that the second cast impressed its audience as well as opening night’s cast did, and I regret the lost opportunity to hear the alternate singers.
Missoula does not come by its opera easily, thanks to a combination of forces: the size of the city, the relative population interested in paying to attend, the complexity of the assignment and the time necessary to learn and rehearse. Selection of talent may be another factor, and, as with other challenging theatrical projects, opera must wait until the possibility of technical success presents itself. But opera lovers take note: The UM Department of Music cares deeply about opera, and when the forces align, magic emerges. With a large orchestra conducted by Luis Millan, with flair and lightness in just the right spots, this Magic Flute cast a spell that transported its audience into the depths of musical brilliance.
MCT’s production, directed by Jim Caron in a collaboration with the UM music department, was quite spare, almost shockingly so for MCT. More often than not, the singers took over a bare stage, against the backdrop of two immense triangle silhouettes, meant to remind us of the pyramids so prevalent in Freemason symbolism. Sometimes a crudely rendered tree took the stage, and for the Queen of the Night’s realm, the backdrop sparkled with tiny stars. The emphasis, then, was rightly on the singers, who all performed impressively. If any fault could have been noted, it would only have been one of timidity, the singers seeming on occasion not to trust how good they were.
The Magic Flute is incoherent, and it certainly lacks the brilliant interplay of music, character and libretto that defines the da Ponte operas, but that has never dimmed its significance nor its pleasures, which count among them some gorgeous songs and the influential and inescapable character of the Queen of the Night. The Queen, a notorious hysteric of powerful force, appears for two coloratura arias, then disappears, but the songs are exquisitely complex, and Emily Murdock, her young face somewhat obscured beneath a giant glittering headdress, executed them with technical assurance and strength, cold to the point of chilling.
In contrast, Kathleen Regan, as her daughter Pamina, filled her character with a deep lushness that welled up repeatedly into great emotion, her supple soprano voice caressing her songs. Her lover Tamino, sung by Avery Williams, blossomed in her presence. Abbigail Cote, Emily Burr and Angela Wilkes as the Queen’s attendants brought lively energy to their music as well as to their movements, and they achieved a comic presence. Archie McMillan handled Sarastro with contemplative authority, and he conveyed the might and stature of his character well. If he did not achieve musical perfection with Sarastro’s extraordinarily beautiful pieces, he still made a respectable attempt with music that is as haunting and complicated as any in Mozart. Alex Rosenleaf, as the comic villain Monostatos, performed with beauty and presence.
Comedy, specifically that of the human condition, balances Pamina in her filial struggle and in the trials she shares with her lover, and on opening night Peter Park, as comedy’s ambassador, played Papageno with fluidity and candor, warm humanity and colorful voice. His cheerful, self-mocking Papageno delighted—as it should have. Though few children attended the evening performance that lasted three hours, those who were there felt captivated and enchanted, lured in by the fairy-tale feeling of the story and music. Children appeared briefly, though adorably, in the production, costumed first as parts of a serpent, then as magical, dancing animals, spellbound by the magic bells. This production, which had a sort of hard emptiness to it, concentrated less on such enchantment and more on the Masonic codes, and was just as impenetrable. Linda Muth’s costumes ranged from the classical romantic, in the case of Pamina’s peach-colored feminine dress, to the halfway whimsical (Papageno looked like he needed wings to go with his scant feathers), to the peculiar—Sarastro in Masonic garb called Clash of the Titans and Star Trek to mind, and the three spirits, clothed in bright turquoise and draped with strings and ribbons, seemed trapped in an Esther Williams number.
The Magic Flute is an opera of discrete wonders, and as such it can be taken almost as a chapter series in introducing the very young to opera. Because of this, it is often considered “easy,” but no one should mistake the music as easy nor underestimate the talent of the singers who can perform it with such grace and beauty. Neither will the very young notice the poignancy or the emotional exploration that many of the songs capture. This doesn’t matter much with music as ravishing as The Magic Flute’s, as well-performed, and, in Missoula, as rare.