The Magic Flute
The San Francisco Opera’s summer 2012 season, featuring three productions never before seen in San Francisco, is now completed by an eye-popping treatment of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Designed by Japanese-American visual artist Jun Kaneko, directed by Harry Silverstein and musically propelled by Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald, this English-language version of Mozart’s final opera may not be willing to offer more than a superficial glance at the enduring tale of love and enlightenment, but it does add up to a bright and lively night in the theatre.
There is more than enough good-natured fun in SFO General Director David Gockley’s new English version to make us agreeable to his liberal use of colloquialisms and streamlined dialogue. It also quickens the action and dampens some of the male chauvinism and vague racism of the original German text by Emanuel Schikaneder. Director Silverstein is also on board with clear and unfussy crowd control, and the flexible pacing of conductor Macdonald (making a fine SFO debut) creates a cheerful framework for Kaneko’s impressive if somewhat relentless designs.
Primary colors, whimsical costumes and kinetic projections, aided by the marvelous digital animation of the Clark Creative Group, bring this production to a deserved place in the modern tradition of designer Magic Flutes. The closest comparison would be to artist David Hockney’s legendary realization, with a nod to Karel Appel’s Salzburger Festspiele extravaganza. Kaneko’s concept is simpler than Julie Taymor’s in her Metropolitan Opera spectacle, and he manages to achieve an almost cinematic flow through two long acts of complicated plot. I can’t help missing the delightful animals and sets of Gerald Scarfe’s magical production for the SFO in 2007, but this new Flute has a charming freshness and imagination, too. It also delivers musically, and we leave the War Memorial grateful once more for Mozart’s immortal tunes.
The current cast has been reportedly plagued by a troublesome bug, prompting announcements asking for allowance of possible problems, but only one singer seemed troubled on the night we attended, and the rest of the fine ensemble showed little signs of vocal stress. Following Macdonald’s perky lead from the pit, they actually seemed extremely fit, and all displayed good comic timing in the spoken dialogue.
Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova is making her SFO debut with a beautifully dramatic portrayal of the Queen of the Night. We can see how she is earning an international reputation as the go-to gal for the part. Her stratospheric high notes are perfectly pitched, and she also has a warm middle and lower voice. If she betrays a hint of unidiomatic accent, it is easily forgiven.
Former Adler Fellow tenor Alek Shrader also stands out as a virile and sympathetic Tamino. Of all the principals, Kaneko gives him the most recognizably human and flattering costume. That must mean something, but he would have been able to surmount the otherwise inexplicable designs anyway.
Nadine Sierra (Papagena in disguise) and Nathan Gunn (Papageno) in San Francisco Opera’s new production of The Magic Flute. (Photo: Cory Weaver)
Local (and international) favorite American baritone Nathan Gunn is not as lucky with his wardrobe. Almost unrecognizable in clownish makeup and a boldly patterned coverall, Gunn still shines through with most of his boyish charm intact. He has an appealing tone and enough power to be heard and understood without needing supertitles for clarification. He also moves well, and adds some amusing hilarity to the lovably underachieving birdman anxiously searching for a bride and a decent quaff.
Kaneko and Silverstein get past the disturbing racial implications of the creepy Moorish Monostatos by painting American tenor Greg Fedderly’s face an improbable black and white. He plays the part strictly for laughs, and his funny antics make it work. Also done up in Kabuki-like gear, bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Sarastro looked impressive, and he carried the role with gravity despite little grounding at the bottom of his voice. It might have been that pesky bug again.
We were warned that Heidi Stober as Pamina was appearing though under strain. She sounded just fine, and her pleasing portrayal was well-received.
The Three Boys, Etienne Julius Valdez, Joshua Reiner and John Walsh (all making their SFO debuts), were charming and thoroughly professional. The more seasoned Three Ladies, Melody Moore, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum, gave good individual characterizations with some funny, "Oh no you didn’t" attitude thrown in.
Ian Robertson’s direction of the SFO Chorus came across best during their exciting onstage appearances. Offstage singing sounded muffled and distant.
The Magic Flute continues through Sunday, July 8.