Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a letter to the audience for the opening of The Magic Flute at the Harris Theatre on Saturday night. It was read by Chicago Opera Theatre General Director Andreas Mitisek. Mozart realized that Chicago would not be founded until many years after his death, but he hoped we would be spiritually awakened by his opera and, importantly, financially supportive of the Chicago Opera Theatre.
Above Mr.Mitisek’s head and slightly into the audience was a large sphere giving the hint that we were about to enter another universe, an interesting concept by set designer James Macnamara. As the overture began, more spheres appeared above the stage, and finally a kind of distant cosmic dust stretched out across the stage. This set remained throughout the evening, with heavenly bodies shifting position now and then for dramatic effect. Various characters appeared during the overture, adding interest to the music.
The staging, set, and props are sparse, suggesting dramatic events and various locales. Our hero, Tamino, crawls out of a trap door at the onset, wrestling a “monster,” represented by a long rope wound with tiny lights. This prompted my companion for the evening to whisper, “I have the same problem with my Christmas lights.” The unconvincing monster and Tamino and Papageno’s inability to extricate the magic flute and bells from a dangling wire that descended from above the stage, detracted from the magic of The Magic Flute.
The cast, however, was nicely chosen to be believable, with their appropriate looks and beautiful voices, and they helped us to “believe.” Sean Panikkar gave a youthful energy to Tamino. His Sri Lankan background gave the character a romantic mysterious flair, and his easy tenor sound was a pleasure for the appreciative audience.
Elizabeth Reiter as Pamina was equally convincing as the young ingénue, and her strong soprano voice brought power and pathos to the part. Notably, her lament in the second act during Tamino’s trial of silence was one of the nicest moments of the evening.
Papageno, always an audience favorite, was ably sung by Marcus Beam. He bounded about the stage with the skill of a dancer, adding levity to an opera which sometime gets mired in preaching the necessity about living a pure and truthful life. Papageno’s “suicide scene” at the end of the opera was somewhat diminished by the absence of a tree and rope. Instead, he planned to jump through an open trap door. Hmmm.
Grigory Soloviov as Sarastro has a commanding physical presence and a rich bass voice. Stronger low notes would have completed the image. Bruce Hall as the Speaker gave a likewise strong and welcoming presence to the “brotherhood.”
The three Ladies, Leila Bowie, Julia Hardin, and Katherine McGookey, were fun and sang with beautifully blended voices. With their flowing, fantastic fairy land costumes, they flitted about the stage, providing movement during musical interludes. Costuming the three in identical costumes diminished their different personalities. They are not one unit; each has her own opinion about the situation at hand, usually involving the handsome Tamino.
Alex Mansoori sang well, but was not particularly menacing as the evil Monostatos. Although interestingly costumed as a South American banana republic dictator, Mansoori just wasn’t as threatening as his character usually is. Pamina was only minimally repulsed. Monostatos’s platoon of soldiers were also dressed in the banana republic look, and this chorus of men performed beautifully.
Gregory Gale’s costume designs were eclectic. Each group of characters seemed to be in a different world, from near-realistic to extreme fantasy. The three boys, Henry Lunn, Andrew Peck, and Duncan Johnson, appeared like angelic English schoolboys with white short pants and a golden aura attached to their backs. Their voices blended well, and they ran lightly about the stage or sometimes appeared in the clouds above.
Lighting designer Julian Pike designed many quite beautiful lighting effects, often creating an interesting mood. However, the general look of the opera was dark. It was too long a wait for the dark back curtain to open and reveal a brightly lit cyclorama at the very end of the performance.
The best voice of the evening belonged to Emily Hindrich (a last minute substitute for Claudia Boyle, who had last minute visa problems) as Queen of the Night. She overcame the obstacles of an awkward costume that included a cane to sing her three arias with great finesse and clarity. Her second act aria was a highlight. Director Michael Gieleta had her hobble around Pamina’s bed during her famous aria. In other scenes, Gieleta motivated singers and moved choruses around well, creating interesting stage pictures.
It is amazing that Mozart (1756-1791) created so many fine operas in his short life, with The Clemency of Titus in the same year as The Magic Flute. Chicago Opera Theatre does a fine job with Flute, certainly one of Mozart’s best. COT’s fine Young Artist Program serves to bring up new performers. Third Lady Katherine McGookey is part of that program.
Photos: Liz Lauren
The Magic Flute
2 hours and 45 minutes with one 20-minute intermission
In English with English supertitles
The Harris Theater for Music and Dance
205 E Randolph Dr, Chicago, IL 60601
Wednesday, September 19, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, September 21, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, September 23, 3:00 p.m.
Chicago Opera Theater
312.704.8414 Monday-Friday 9am-5pm