‘Magic Flute’ Zips, But Also Overruns Spirit Of Mozart

A scene from the Seattle Opera production of ‘The Magic Flute,’ with sets by Robert Dahlstrom and Robert Schaub.
(Photo by Philip Newton)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE – It is one thing to attempt to present Mozart’s The Magic Flute as an ultra-entertaining visual spectacle, complete with gorgeous costumes and English surtitles with clever contemporary references. But when musical values are sacrificed, as they were in Seattle Opera’s revisit of this 2011 production of Mozart’s oft-sublime masterpiece, the results are only intermittently satisfying.

Christina Poulitsi sings the Queen of the Night. (Philip Newton)

Seen opening night on May 6 with the first of two casts – Tamino, Pagageno, Pamina, and the Three Spirits are all double-cast – the opera showcased a slew of young talent. At its head was English maestra Julia Jones, who will soon conduct the opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

While there was nothing inherently wrong with Jones’ penchant for zippy tempos and frequent use of sforzando and pinpoint articulation, she seemed to have lost sight of the spiritual essence of Mozart’s music. As early as the overture, where the music paused for the three repeated figures associated with the ceremonial and spiritual solemnity of Sarastro and his Court, those “da-dums” were repeated blandly, as if they mattered little. As the opera progressed, in rapid passage after passage, what were intended to be tastefully applied sforzandos became staccato, quasi-machine gun emphases that broke up the musical line.

The treatment of one of opera’s most exalted declarations of love, Tamino’s “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön,” was most disappointing. Rather than emphasize legato or tonal purity, tenor Andrew Stenson, a two-time Seattle Opera Young Artist who is slated to sing Ernesto in Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne, constantly distorted his vocal line by overemphasizing word after word. Paying little attention to legato, Stenson failed to convey the purity of spirit associated with Tamino.

Stenson’s singing, however, seemed subdued compared to baritone John Moore’s hyper-kinetic, cartoon-character Papageno. Moore, who is slated to sing Mozart’s Figaro in Japan and Rossini’s Figaro in Seattle, seemed to capitalize every fourth word he sang, and to punctuate line after line with unwritten exclamation points. While he occasionally sang an unbroken line with  beauty and grace, he mostly punched out his music in slapstick fashion while running and jumping around — presumably at the urging of stage director Chris Alexander and debut choreographer Kathryn Van Meter.

Tamino (Andrew Stenson) is pursued by a serpent. (Jacob Lucas)

Initially entertaining, Moore quickly grew exhausting to watch. Papageno may be an irrepressible, unapologetic dolt and a foil to the earnest Prince Tamino, but he is not intended to throw around musical lines like Laurel to Hardy. Equally exaggerated was Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel, who sang a crazed Monostatos (and soon does Pang in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Turandot).

Another eyebrow-raising aspect of the production was the introduction of unwritten “oohs,” “ahs,” and other expressions at the ends of spoken dialogue and, in at least one case, arias. It was one thing for dramaturg-captioner Jonathan Dean to elicit welcome laughter by changing the projected English translation of the sung German to read, for example, “Instead of fake news, love would prevail.” But extraneous exclamations in a production already overwhelmed by unmusical exclamations was simply over the top.

Lauren Snouffer as Pamina and John Moore as Papageno. (Jacob Lucas)

What the production did to the lovely voiced Three Spirits, of whom two are veteran members of Seattle Opera’s Youth Opera Chorus, was equally disturbing.

Entering on scooters that made a racket as they zoomed around the stage, they at one point marched onto the set in a clomp, clomp, clomp that detracted from the charm of their singing. It didn’t help matters that their adult counterparts, the Three Ladies, were an unbalanced trio, with the leading edge of soprano Jacqueline Piccolino’s fine voice not blending with Nian Wang’s and Jenni Bank’s.

Yet the production also had its winning aspects. Soprano Lauren Snouffer, who is slated to next tackle Agnés in Opera Philadelphia’s Written on Skin, Amour in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Orphée et Eurydice, and the title role in Teatro Municipal de Santiago’s Lulu, has a bright, supremely beautiful, perfectly placed lyric instrument that was ideal for Pamina.

Snouffer’s musical intelligence and onstage charm were so strong that she basically reined in Stenson in their lovely Pamina-Tamino duets. She also managed to transcend Jones’ zippy, mostly metronomic approach to “Ach, ich fühl’s” by rendering its final phrases quite touchingly. Snouffer was also the only principal singer capable of altering dynamics to convey emotion while simultaneously singing an impeccable legato line. The Texas-born 29-year-old artist is destined to go far.

German soprano Christina Poulitsi, who is slated to take her Queen of the Night to Covent Garden and the Bolshoi Theatre, will probably wow those audiences as much as she did Seattle’s. In its lower range, the voice may not be that large or pure, but it is capped by a clear, strong, accurate top. If just a bit too careful in voicing the rapidly articulated runs of her opening aria, she was a wonder in “Der Hölle Rache.” She was also willing to sacrifice a bit of beauty in the lower register for the sake of convincing vehemence.

A monkey and a crocodile are among the ‘Magic Flute’ creatures. (Philip Newton)

Croatian bass Ante Jerkunica, who soon sings at Deutsche Oper Berlin (where he is a resident artist), Teatro Colön, and the BBC Proms, is the real thing. While the conductor seemed to challenge Jerkunica to sing his big arias rapidly and still maintain profundity, he largely succeeded despite that gloss. Possessing an unusually strong bottom register and an equally beautiful top, Jerkunica had no trouble descending at the end of “In diesen heil’gen Hallen.” If only Jones had lightened up just enough to let his softer but nonetheless powerful subterranean sounds roll over the orchestra.

Zandra Rhodes‘ bright costumes, Robert Dahlstrom and Robert Schaub’s set design, and Duane Schuler’s lighting were all a joy to take in. With constant emphasis on the triangle as a spiritual symbol of unity and wisdom, the set’s brightly lit yet tastefully spare elements illuminated music and story without distraction. The final trial by fire was beautifully executed.

Due to the long commute between my home and Seattle, it was impossible for me to evaluate the other three young artists in the second cast: tenor Randall Bills, who is slated to sing Almaviva in The Barber of Seville at Theater Wielki Poznan; baritone Craig Verm, who returns to Seattle in Così fan tutte and Beatrice and Benedict; and soprano Amanda Forsythe, who has upcoming roles with the Boston Early Music Festival and Handel and Haydn Society.

Papagena (Amanda Opuszynski), Papageno (John Moore), and friends. (Newton)

This production has a surprise ending. If you intend to see it, skip the next paragraph.

The Queen of the Night makes a final appearance at opera’s end and attempts to seize the sun hanging around Sarastro’s neck, but he rebuffs her. Instead, he begins to give it to Tamino. Tamino rejects it, whereupon Pamina grabs the sun and smashes it to the ground. Was this action perhaps intended to signal the end of a royal order in which men are the bearers of peace and wisdom and women a dark force of distraction? Whatever the intention, the ending left this Mozart lover contemplating The Magic Flute’s deepest mysteries and meanings.

The Magic Flute runs through May 21. For tickets and information, click here.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.

Members of the Seattle Opera Chorus portray the priests of Isis and Osiris. (Philip Newton)