Primary Colors: “The Magic Flute”

With beautiful singing voices in WNO's The Magic Flute, much is still out of tune

The Magic Flute Photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

The Magic Flute
Photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is one of those operas regularly plucked wriggling from the repertoire for the purpose of creating a family-friendly interpretation. With a young heroine caught between a dangerous mother and her all-powerful rival, and a young hero prepared to go through magical trials and tribulations to win her, it’s a story with all the elements of an easy-to-digest fairy tale. Whether one prefers to read more or less into it is thoroughly optional. Add Mozart’s score, with its head-bobbing rhythmics mixed with moments of sublime melody and vocal acrobatics, and it can be the perfect vehicle for newcomers and season-ticket-holders alike.

But achieving the balance for such a wide audience is far easier said than done. A beautifully colorized Crayola-box of a production, the WNO’s Flute, set and carried with Jun Kaneko’s bold geometric projections, promises an immense and joyous originality (even with its debt to The Yellow Submarine). And when the singers sing, there is nothing but glorious adherence to the music. What fails here — and unfortunately it is a true fail — is the choice to seriously dumb-down the libretto and offer its many spoken interludes in the ugliest of TV language and voices.

Of course the point is outreach (and it’s no accident that this was the opera chosen to be simulcast at Nationals Park this season), but it raises two burning and critical questions: First, if you move opera this far from its traditions, how will newcomers ever bridge the gap to “real” opera? And, second, what are you going to do with the many ready-to-pay-vast-sums-for-seats opera lovers who will cringe in horror when they see one of their favorites flavored with the saccharine and simplistic vileness of what currently passes for children’s and teen theater? Put frankly, there will be many who, the next time they see “family-friendly,” will opt to keep their money in their wallets and position their Roche Bobois in front of the Bang & Olufsen instead.

For even if one can tolerate the Queen of the Night being referred to as “Mom” (at least until she suddenly becomes “Mother” in this uneven libretto) and even if one can sort of find amusement in the updated asides and jokes of Kelley Rourke’s English-language adaptation, what is impossible to forgive are the spoken voices. For although the women do no worse than deliver their lines in the teacherly tones of musical theater, the men are unforgivable. Channeling hideous shades of Grand Theft Auto‘s Trevor and the ubiquitous Seth Rogan, their voices grate, yell and whine through the singspiel like grotesque storytellers from the Village of the Damned.

Of course, with virtually all children’s TV and theater now delivered in some variation of this crass anti-modulated pitch, some won’t even notice. But surely opera, if no other genre, would have refused it admission?  And if American Shakespearean actors can find a happy and melodic vocal home in the Transatlantic; why not these highly literate, often multilingual, opera singers? 

What makes it all the more stark is that, as soon as the horrible speaking voices end, the beautiful singing voices begin. It is the ultimate pinch and pet and there is simply no reconciling these two extremes and their disruption to the aural and aesthetic continuity. Add the libretto, which moves from flip to sanctimonious like the laziest of TV sitcoms, and there is no place for the serious listener to settle.

And there is yet another unfortunate effect: If the huge color-line patterns projecting behind the action start as something almost mathematically majestic, in the context of this production they all start to feel a bit like so much Baby Einstein.

Still, those with forbearance may come for the music, and if one has the fortitude there is plenty to love. As Tamino, the prince who strives to win the lovely Pamina (who has been abducted by Sarastro, the leader of a powerful Egyptian-esque cult), tenor Joseph Kaiser (note that many of the leads are shared over the run) cuts a dashing figure and sings with poise and pleasing tone. As his sidekick Papageno, who must find his own, more comical road to fulfillment, Joshua Hopkins offers a skilled presence, confident comic timing and clear and expressive singing.

Giving her Pamina some Dorothy-of-Oz cuteness and gumption, Maureen McKay sings with appealing sweetness and delicacy. As her soullessly wicked mother, the Queen of the Night, and sporting some wonderful Grace Jones headdresses, Kathryn Lewek sings with gorgeous, authoritative tone and delivers thrills with a bold rendering of the spectacular aria “Der Hölle Rache.”    

As Sarastro, Soloman Howard, working a role that consists mainly of standing around in (often absurd) ceremonial costume, sings with much beauty, if not always total ease and comfort. Less successful, tenor John Easterlin, as Sarastro’s dubious henchman, commits much of the spoken crime here and, although light-years more palatable, offers a singing voice that is somewhat weaker than ideal. As the Speaker, a sometime-guide for Tamino during his trials, David Pittsinger delivers with a sonorous and expressive voice.

It’s a shame to end the season on a negative note, but there is no doubt that the WNO’s laudable (and financially necessary) mission to make more operas accessible is defaulting to the crude versus the innovative. If the 11-year old who accompanied this reviewer called it “colorful but cheesy,” this Flute is too much out of tune — and so are its visionaries.

The Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute (3 STARS) runs to May 18 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $25 to $305. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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