Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of the New Jersey Opera Theatre's production of "The Magic Flute," published by EDGE Philadephia

After seeing a production of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, it’s only fitting that I see The New Jersey Opera production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Whereas Shaffer’s play speculated on Mozart’s death at the hands of the Masons, Mozart’s opera presents the evidence for that case. Rich in Masonic imagery and symbolism (not to mention Enlightenment contrasts of reason and emotion, and the place of the individual versus the value of the social order), The Magic Flute has escaped this lore of conspiracy and murder, as its enjoyable music and hilarious libretto have made it one of the most popular operas of all time.

The opera tells the story of the prince Tamino (Greg Warren), ensnared by the Queen of the Night (Colleen Daly) into rescuing her daughter Pamina (Kisma Jordan), held captive by Sarastro (Matthew Curran) in his palace. With his sidekick Papageno (Peter Couchman), Tamino sets forth on this quest, and encounters the surprisingly virtuous Sarastro, who convinces the errant prince of the Queen’s deceit. Offered Pamina’s hand in marriage if he can overcome the trials necessary to gain admittance to the Temple of Light and Reason, Tamino succeeds, realizing his character and his place in this tale of friendship, brotherhood, and moral order.

For the opener of their fourth summer season, Director Scott Altman has assembled a very talented young cast to perform in his musically outstanding production of Mozart’s opera at Princeton’s McCarter Theater. Curran’s Sarastro anchored the entire production with the gravitas of his rich bass, finding a counterpart both in the libretto and in Ben Wagner’s equally commanding texture in the role of the Speaker.

Greg Warren turned Tamino into an earnest prince, giving soft yet heartfelt interpretations of his many arias, a lightness that alas, only showed the beautiful color of his voice in his lower register. And while Colleen Daly gave a diligent and satisfying version of Der Holle Rache (one of the most difficult arias in the soprano repertoire); Jordan’s Pamina emerged as the pleasant surprise of the evening, displaying a wonderful clarity in her lovely voice.

The choral singing provided a superb backdrop, adding needed grandeur to the Temple scenes (see below), and the group singing of both the three Ladies and three spirits enchanted whenever they appeared to motivate the plot.

However, the true joy of this Magic Flute appeared in feathery form-that of the bird catcher Papageno. Playing the goofy sidekick in this often goofy opera, his voice-whether spoken or sung-added all of the intentional humor, compensated for a bad choice (again, keep reading), and elevated the quality of this production tremendously.

I only take issue with Altman’s decision to keep the songs in the original German, while having the actors speak the text in translated English. Conceptually, this is not a bad decision, provided that the singers all act even moderately well. But here, only Couchman’s Papageno handles the demands that this decision imposes, and while his mannerisms and comic timing don’t equal his singing, it’s only because his singing is excellent, and he’s hysterical nonetheless.

Had Altman left the entire libretto in German, he could’ve avoided placing this burden on his singers, allowing them to focus all of their energies on perfecting the songs, and enabling the audience to sit undistracted by any type of acting while they read the supertitles of the German spoken on stage. As acted-not poorly, but not well-the interludes of English dialogue disrupt the world of the opera (created by the song and music) and cleave the action in two, both slowing the play down in between musical numbers, and creating a noticeable imbalance between the singing and acting passages.

However, though well founded, this is a personal disagreement that much of the audience enjoyed while both listening to songs they knew and while being drawn into the drama by not having to "read along." (The few German speakers in the audience, well...)

Only the blank sets and occasional prop failures (lights going out or not working) made this young company look and seem their age. At many points, not even the lighting hinted at a setting, particularly with Tamino alone on a bare stage with merely a bench and full orchestra to differentiate this performance from a rehearsal. At all other times, white floor-to-ceiling planks served as Temple, mountains, palace, etc., and worse, the poorly executed and low quality projections made the technical aspects of the production appear all the more amateurish, especially in comparison to the well performed music and singing.

Conductor Brent McMunn treated the music with full respect-giving it a light and lively strength, while tempering the sound enough not to overwhelm the cast. And overall, Altman created a musically dynamic production, with a well-balanced cast, and staging and direction, particularly in the choral or group numbers, that made this Magic Flute far greater than the sum of its parts.

In that respect, I was extremely glad when Altman announced before the show that the entire first weekend of performances had sold out, giving more evidence that this young company, approaching their fifth anniversary in November, is quickly starting to fill the massive void left by the closing of the New Jersey Summer Opera Festival in 2003. Though very young, the New Jersey Opera holds all the promise of restoring the festival’s past glory and more, they are a group of talented young professionals whose talent in its own right, deserves to be heard.

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