In my 40-plus years of alleged adulthood, precious few occasions have truly transported me back to childhood. But that's exactly what happened at Friday evening's opening-night Spoleto USA production of W. A. Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Sottile Theatre. I've seen this fanciful and sorcery-ridden operatic coming-of-age tale at least 10 times (and even performed in it once) since I first thrilled to it as a boy of 12 in Vienna, Austria. No subsequent production of it ever engaged my inner child like this one did. Only as I clambered uncertainly to my feet for the final tumultuous standing ovation did my creaky joints remind me of my actual age.
The advance buzz was that this effort was going to strongly boost both the opera's inherent magic and humor: aspects that most versions I've seen have failed to fully realize. I'm convinced that the classical establishment has taken Mozart (a compulsive buffoon who reveled in "low humor") entirely too seriously for more than two centuries now. Thus I'm happy to report that here, at last, is a production that faithfully serves the composer's true spirit and intent for this work. After all — in spite of its exalted "grand opera" reputation, it's essentially a typical German Singspiel, with lots of spoken dialogue and undignified, earthy, even slapstick humor. It's lowbrow entertainment for the masses, but sober classical decorum and Mozart's godlike reputation have traditionally made something entirely too serious of it.
In a recent interview, co-directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser declined to comment on their specific plans for stage magic, on the grounds that the audience wouldn't perceive it as "real magic" if they revealed their various tricks beforehand. And I'm glad they didn't, because there was indeed real magic at hand, starting with the enchanted flute, which first appeared floating in mid-air. The magical set of Glöckchen (little bells) moved around a drunken Papageno, the bird-catcher, seemingly with a life of its own. Assorted fireworks and menacing outbursts of thunder and lightning weren't just confined to the stage, they exploded all over the theatre. Cunning modifications to the Sottile stage allowed for abrupt appearances and disappearances. The scene where the three boy-spirits thwart heroine Pamina's suicide attempt and then float off (airborne) with her into the wings seemed right out of Peter Pan's "I can fly" episode. And those are but a few of countless examples.
As for the work's inherent humor, the directors passed up no opportunity to bring it out. The three "ladies of the night," who normally come across as prim and seriously sinister minions of the evil Queen of the Night, were portrayed as the opera's wackiest buffoons, complete with outlandish costumes that borrowed from several centuries' worth of high (and low) fashion. This particular Papageno — the opera's comic mainstay — was by far the hammiest I've ever seen. Even the opera's supposedly serious Masonic symbolism was lampooned more often than not.
Almost everything else worked well, too. The Spoleto Festival Orchestra's players performed almost flawlessly under Conductor Steven Sloane's deft baton, producing lush and lively orchestral sound. Dr. Joe Miller's sterling Westminster Choir outdid itself. The spare sets and uncluttered stage allowed the magic to come at us from anywhere. Lighting design — a definite part of the "magic" — was imaginative and effective. The infinitely varied costumes contributed to the production's "timeless" effect, preventing the pegging of the piece to any particular period or place.
Major and minor characters alike were impressive, with a few nit-picking exceptions. Among the lead roles, Fabio Trümpy, as Tamino, used his gleaming lyric tenor voice to sweet and ardent effect. His sweetheart Pamina, played by soprano Marie Arnet, offered honeyed and love-stricken singing to match. Ruben Drole, with his rich, rolling baritone voice and relentless stage antics, was an absolute wonder as bird-man Papageno. Soprano Audrey Luna, as the Queen of the Night, wowed her listeners with her (mostly) glittering coloratura acrobatics. Kevin Short, in the role of the high priest Sarastro, was literally a towering stage presence, thanks to his concealed stilts and commanding bass voice. The three ladies of the night were all vocally secure and comically effective. The children playing the three spirits — listed as knaben (or boys) in German productions — were charming, as well as vocally confident and competent. Their roles are being rotated among six kids, three of them girls. While women are cast in the spirit roles in most American productions, the presence of real youngsters here did much to sustain the prevailing sense of the supernatural.
It wasn't perfect. Minor defects included a brief moment of disconnect early on between hero Tamino's very attractive singing and the orchestra. And the Queen of the Night sounded just a bit sharp and screechy in her first aria's formidable high notes (but she surely nailed them in her second number). The near-capacity crowd probably never even noticed the remaining handful of tiny glitches that hardly bear mentioning.
There are seven performances to go, so you'll be hard-pressed to find an excuse for not attending this totally beguiling production. By all means, bring your kids, provided they know how to behave in public. Even the little five-year-old girl sitting close by me sat through the whole thing in rapt wonderment, with nary a peep or fidget. This definitely has the potential to be for them — as it was for me — a life-changing childhood experience. Just about the only scene not particularly suitable for youngsters was bad-guy Monostatos's attempted seduction (rape?) of Pamina early on.
This production's musicians and creative team have conspired to make Mozart's well-loved Magic Flute even more lovable. So here's your chance to revel in what may well turn out to be the finest and most entertaining performance of it you'll ever see.