The University of Arizona’s Opera Theater took a giant step with its production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.* Everything about the production was on a grander scale than in previous years. However, the artistic foundation on which David Ward, the school’s new opera director, was able to mount such a clever and funny rendition of Mozart’s fairy-tale, had been built on the hard work and talent of its longtime director Charles Roe. In this way, Ward and his merry band of players were able to take full advantage of the school’s resources and mount a production that showed off Ward’s own theatrical talent with savvy and panache. And the double cast of singers were just about on an even keel vocally, which demonstrated the university’s ability to attract more students than ever before to its vocal curriculum.
To start with, set designer Sally Day’s floor-to-ceiling gray slabs, jaggedly textured, were easily turned around to show the entrance to Sarastro’s temple, giving the look of a primitive eastern culture. How Ms. Day got those large pieces to move without a sound may be for us to ponder, but the result was an artistic wonder.
Christopher Allen’s costumes were a crazy mixture of styles and colors that added so much to the overall delight of the production. It is worth mentioning the following: Papagano’s feathered headpiece; the long, dark-red dresses for the Three Ladies; and, best of all, the black full-length skirt for Queen of the Night, with her bright red hair topped with an outrageous three-tiered tiara. There were teased blond wigs, all puffy, with twinkling lights on the Ladies trio and the three spirits that made you chuckle. Still, the blond wigs selected for Pamina, the Queen’s daughter, were not visually appealing and, for one Pamina, ill-suited.
Music Director Thomas Cockrell and Ward made the decision that all the musical parts would be sung in German, with the intermittent dialogues in English, making the opera a Singspiel as designated by Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. There were times when the students’ spoken dialogue did not match their vocal abilities, forging an uneven delivery of the English text. But Cockrell and Ward are to be congratulated for not forcing the students to pretend they had acting chops that they did not possess. And there were times when this approach allowed the singers to relax and present themselves in a natural manner.
There were a number of good vocal performances from the two casts as well as those who presented interesting characterizations. Both Paminas were prepared vocally and acting-wise in showing what a trial is was to be Queen of the Night’s daughter. Yunnie Park sang with a smoother lyrical line than Kelsey Rogers, but Rogers’s line delivery was first-rate. Brian McNiff’s Prince Tamino was more attentive to his fellow performers than James Austin, but Austin’s vocal line was closer to what Mozart wanted from his “hero.” Dori Marie Smith’s Queen had a solid vocal line up-and-down the scale along with a good dramatic feel for the role. Michelle Perrier hit all the notes as well, but her limited stage experience shown through now and then.
Both trios comprising the Ladies who attended to the Queen’s demands sang with vocal security and fulfilled their courtly duties with great humor. And as Monostatos, the nasty, but lame lecher of Pamina, Brandon Dale used his big physique and his strong tenor to show the character’s silly side as well. If Olman Alfaro’s Monostatos was smaller in physical size, he was able to vocally fill the role with humor and show the daffy body movements that Ward had designed for this slightly deranged character.
For the comic sets of lovers, Alejandro Bañuelos and Jonathan Kim brought out the lovable and frivolous side of Papagano and Leah Williams and Mary Keck as Papagana, did as well. If Bañuelos was more outgoing and demonstrative in his frustration with having to go through the trials with Tamino, Kim was a bit more understated, but still projected Papagano’s comical exasperation at Tamino’s royal demands.
The School of Music had to go outside of the student roster of singers to find a bass to sing the mature vocal lines needed for Sarastro, the High Priest of Isis. Arizeder Urreiztieta expressed the regal and pontifical side of the priest’s demeanor, but was short vocally on the full resonance that Mozart’s stately music required.
Instead of using boy sopranos and altos for the Three Spirits who guide Pamina and Tamino through the ordeals Sarastro has set out for them, Ward gave the parts to the school’s sopranos and altos in order to increase student participation in the production. Doubly cast, the women were fitted into one dress, Ward’s takeoff on the silly side of the Disco craze. A definite plus to the production was Jonathan Kim’s chorus that intoned the beautiful harmonies that run through Mozart’s choral scenes.
Cockrell conducted the Arizona Symphony Orchestra with all the care and attention to detail that the composer’s intricate musical charts demand. And the way Cockrell led his forces to come in at the exact moment the English dialogue segued into the sung German text was just one example of how much care he and Ward gave in staging what many critics and fans consider Mozart’s operatic masterpiece.
* See The Magic Flute-Wikipedia