Story: Handsome prince Tamino is approached by three lady attendants of the Queen of the Night, who find him attractive but inaccessible. The Queen herself subsequently appears to Tamino and promises him her beautiful daughter Pamina in marriage if he can free Pamina from the evil sorcerer Sarastro.
Tamino makes the perilous journey to Sarastro’s den accompanied by the light-hearted bird-catcher Papageno, whose motivating goal is to marry a pretty woman and have a big family. To help Tamino, the Queen’s ladies give him a magic flute that can turn sorrow into joy, and also present some magic bells to Papageno that will enchant all who hear them. They then send three child spirits to guide Tamino to Pamina.
Pamina is coveted by Sarastro’s henchman, Monostatos, but is enraptured when she learns that a handsome prince is coming to free her. When Tamino sees Pamina, they fall in love. Tamino discovers that Sarastro is not evil but rather benevolent, but also learns from Sarastro that he must pass a stern and treacherous trial of wisdom before he can marry Pamina.
When the Queen hears that Tamino is in the process of joining the brotherhood of Sarastro and his followers, she gives Pamina a dagger and instructs her to kill Sarastro herself, even while Tamino perseveres to win her hand.
Highlights: The Magic Flute is considered to be Mozart’s most popular opera and is the fourth most-produced opera in the world. The opening production of the 2014 season of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis marks its fourth presentation by OTSL, including the first performance of Andrew Porter’s English lyrics that were commissioned by OTSL in 1980.
To further enliven proceedings, OTSL gives free rein to director/designer Isaac Mizrahi to offer his own interpretation of what he considers his favorite opera. The result is a somewhat funky but spirited rendition that Mizrahi sets on a Hollywood sound stage haunted by the ghost of a grande dame who just happens to have a spectacular voice in the person of Claire de Sevigne.
Other Info: Mizrahi’s interpretation allows for a scenic design that plays out on a Hollywood sound stage featuring such garish accoutrements as golden-skinned soldiers and exaggerated animals that frolic across the set. Some of it is amusing, such as those pastoral creatures who befriend Papageno. Other aspects, such as the three spirits dressed like babies a la Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan in Vincente Minnelli’s 1953 flick, The Band Wagon (pictured in OTSL’s handsome program), seem forced and just silly.
There’s nothing silly, though, about Canadian de Sevigne’s soaring soprano, which defies belief while you hear her crisply and deliberately pierce a series of singular notes in the Queen’s aria, Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart (English translation). That's when the Queen of the Night explodes when she learns from her daughter that Tamino is determined to join Sarastro’s brotherhood of enlightenment.
In her OTSL debut de Sevigne possesses the show’s best voice, but there are other notable contributions. Former Gerdine Young Artist Elizabeth Zharoff showcases a smooth, strong soprano in the role of Pamina, while tenor Sean Panikkar dazzles as the intrepid Tamino.
Levi Hernandez’s comic chops serve him well as the amiable Papageno, looking quite bizarrely decked out in a half-suit, half-feathers concoction conceived by Mizrahi for the bird-catcher. Former Gerdine Young Artist Matthew Anchel’s resonant bass strikes the proper serious chords as the sagacious Sarastro, while Katrina Galka’s Papagena is a visual and auditory comic delight.
Matthew di Battista is a ghoulish blue demon as Monostatos in Tom Watson’s resplendent makeup (which also paints Sarastro’s guards in that gaudy gold), while Mizrahi appoints the Queen’s attendants, namely Raquel Gonzalez, Summer Hassan and Corrie Stallings, in frilly blue dresses. Emily Tweedy, Gillian Lynn Cotter and Fleur Barron are the baby-doll-attired spirits and bass-baritone Andrew Kroes primarily speaks his lines as the temple spokesman in Emanuel Schikaneder’s singspiel which blends spoken dialogue with songs.
Mizrahi takes advantage of John Heginbotham’s enchanting choreography to underscore the levity of both Mozart’s music and the libretto, which includes new English dialogue for this production by Susan Bernofsky in several scenes, further enhanced by Michael Chybowski’s lighting and Wendall Harrington’s video design.
Noted Mozart expert and conductor Jane Glover offers a resounding interpretation with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for her seventh voyage aboard The Magic Flute, one that keeps the music fresh and engaging over the three-hour performance.
All in all, despite a second act that drags to its conclusion and some questionable devices that overplay the Hollywood musical motif, OTSL’s fourth version of The Magic Flute hits plenty of high notes.
Opera: The Magic Flute
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 5, 11, 15, 18, 21, 24, 28
Tickets: $25-$125; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard