Magic Flute Review - LA Opera Revival a Marvel

The Über Playground

(Los Angeles, CA) January 10, 2009 - Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) is a revival of the Los Angeles 1993 production, created originally by Peter Hall, now with a new cast directed by Stanley M. Garner and conducted by James Conlon.

Bird-catcher Papagano (Nathan Gunn) and Prince Tamino (Matthew Polenzani)

With its fantastical, eye-catching sets and brilliantly colorful costumes, The Magic Flute transports the audience into a fanciful world where good battles evil, light vanquishes darkness, and love conquers all. It's a charming fairy tale that hints at deeper mysteries. The libretto was written by theatrical impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who was also the opera's first Papageno.

Says the LA Opera's general director Plácido Domingo, "This is a work that can truly be called a classic, for it has been an audience favorite since its premiere in 1791." This production is especially colorful, in part because its designer Gerald Scarfe is also a political cartoonist, well known to readers of the London Sunday Times and the New Yorker magazine.

Joseph Kaiser plays Tamino in alternate performances.

On premiere night, Georja and Gerald saw Matthew Polenzani as Tamino (a handsome prince), Marie Arnet as Pamina (daughter of the Queen), L'ubica Vargicová as Queen of the Night, Günther Groissböck as Sarastro (the high priest of the Sun), and Nathan Gunn as Papageno (a comic bird-catcher). This cast will do four more performances, and an alternate cast will do four more, for a total of nine shows before the curtain comes down on the run on January 25.

Sarastro (Gunther Groissbock), Monostatus (Greg Fedderly) and Pamina (Marie Arnet)

Georja: As are many operas, the story itself is discombobulated. The fairy tale part is charming, but the moralistic sermonizing in the songs is a bit much. There are countless pieces of dialogue which talk about virtue, love, hate, brotherhood, and other ethical ideals. Oy vey, and in German yet!

The Queen (L'ubica-Vargicova)

Gerald: The Grove Dictionary says, "The exotic costumes and setting...are a mask; Mozart and Schikaneder intended a coded representation of Freemasonry." The story of this opera is a mind game, an intellectual puzzle. That certainly says something about Mozart's fiendish sense of fun. I agree the plot is silly, but when I think more about it, I realize it seems silly because it's full of paradoxes, and means to be a real puzzle. What seems good is bad, and vice versa. And that's just a start.

Georja: I thoroughly enjoyed it purely as music, as a visual feast, as commedia, and as cartoonish, over-the-top design. The movement and staging are all dazzling, couldn't be better.

Princess Leia, Vader's troopers, and the gang from Yellow Submarine?

Gerald: Always looking for Pop parallels, I saw the Queen of the Night and her three ladies as Transylvanian vampires, the priest Sarastro as Darth Vader, and the gang of henchmen led by Monostatus as goons out of Yellow Submarine.

Georja: I want to talk about comedy. Nathan Gunn (Papagano) is hilarious. In addition to his considerable singing talent and his hunky physical attributes, his movements, facial expressions, and timing are impeccable. His long-lost love Papagana ( Amanda Squitieri), although short on stage time, is a high-comedy match for Gunn. The three lady harpies, who all vie for the handsome prince at the same time, are a scream. The character of Monostatus, in his goofy, overstuffed green costume, squatting and plotting, is a riot. I couldn't believe it when I saw the picture in the program of the young, handsome tenor Greg Fedderly, who portrays the ugly devil so well. Then there are three little boys in glasses, ruffed shirts, pink leotards, and white wigs! They sail high above the rest of the cast in a golden boat, on wires, gently guiding the characters to their destinies in sweet falsettos. Adorable!

The Queen's ladies (Beth Clayton, Tamara Wilson and Laureen McNeese) tease Papagano, the bird-catcher.

Gerald: About the evil-is-good thing, it played through the costuming and the action. Darth Vader turns out to be leader of the good guys, and the Queen--whom we think is a good witch because she gives the prince the magic flute--ends up being in diabolical collusion with the ugly, bulging green guy!

Georja: According to Basil DePinto as quoted in the program notes, " Ingmar Bergman, in his classic film, took advantage of a cinematic close-up to indicate that the Queen was deceiving Tamino [all along] as she played on his goodwill and ours. That [subtlety] can't be done on the stage, but it makes perfect sense to conceive it that way." L'ubica Vargicová as the Queen is beautiful, bold, and magnificent. She's gorgeous even in silver-face, and her spirited arias are feisty and grabbed me from my seat.

Evil is an illusion, the high priest tells the princess.

Gerald: Like I said, it's this twisted mind game, and you either buy into it or you don't. Tamino goes through what amounts to a Masonic trial, and he's told continually that if he fails the test he will die. As Sarastro says to Pamina, in effect, "There's no vengeance here." Evil--and death itself--are illusions, have no sting.

Georja: We're talking about totally different things.

Gerald: No, we're not. It's all part of this complicated work.

Georja: Yes, we are. I keep wanting to talk about the elements that make it wonderful and charming, despite its verbal doom-and-gloom. First of all, the fabulous snake, which totally encompasses the set in the first scene, is startling and cute. The menagerie of animal combos is also a wonderment. There's the rhino-dragon, the turtle-tucan, the giraffe-ostrich, and especially endearing is the little alligator-penguin. Not to mention the many Sphinx-like lions, which populated the stage in many scenes.

The Alligator-Penguin walks off with the scene!

Gerald: Not surprisingly, you liked it as entertainment. But I'm still trying to puzzle out the story. This opera can capture the audience both ways, and more.

Georja: One thing I don't appreciate is the second-class status of women in the story. The Queen's women are harpies. The Queen is strong and beautiful but has to be destroyed because she is evil. The princess Pamina is virtuous, but her feelings are disregarded in the quest for spiritual growth. All the high-stature, high-minded people are males. Except, of course, the lovable, down-to-earth Papagano is full of foibles and loves women.

Wielding the flute like the magic wand it is, Tamino leads Pamina through their trial in Sarastro's pyramid.

Gerald: Apparently the Masonic ritual was (and still is) all about men. But in this production--and I don't know whether to credit Mozart for it--Tamino is joined in his final trial by Pamina, and they go through it together. The implication is that it takes both male and female to be an enlightened person, which is how they end up, standing on that glorious, sun-drenched pyramid.

Enlightenment is the prize for princes and princesses who pass their Masonic tests.

Georja: I don't think that's a clear implication, since the priest Sarastro is THE man in terms of high spirituality (although nice, low tones in his bass performance!).

Conductor James Conlon (Photo Courtesy of the Ravinia Festival)

Gerald: Oh, by the way. I can't help remarking that, as the conductor was ready to give the downbeat, a woman called out from the audience, "Love you, James Conlon!" I wondered whether it was a personal or a civic message. The audiences all do seem to love him here.

Georja: And associate conductor and chorus master Grant Gershon took a deserved bow onstage with the company. The chorus work was superb.

Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels

Photos by Robert Millar except where noted.

Los Angeles Opera
(213) 972-8001
(213) 687-3490 fax
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LA Opera Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte)

Saturday, January 10, 2009  7:30 p.m.
Sunday, January 11, 2000  2:00 p.m.
Friday, January 16, 2009  7:30 p.m.
Saturday, January 17, 2009  7:30 p.m.
Sunday, January 18, 2009  2:00 p.m.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009  1:00 p.m.
Thursday, January 22, 2009  7:30 p.m.
Saturday, January 24, 2009  7:30 p.m.
Sunday, January 25, 2009  2:00 p.m.

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