Everyone wants to be over the moon.
When the iconic Queen of the Night, in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, appeared beneath a large crescent moon, I asked myself, “Am I over the moon?" Sadly, I was not. In spite of some fine singing, this Magic Flute was less magic than mundane.
Fine singing usually makes up for nearly anything—a lackluster production, say, or clumsy acting, both of which afflicted this performance. And yet here it could not.
When the iconic Queen of the Night appeared beneath a large crescent moon, I asked myself, “Am I over the moon?" Sadly, I was not.
Magic Flute poses a test for a company. It is a greatly beloved, often-mystifying, often-hilarious, celestial wonder of an opera. Every company should stage a magnificent Magic Flute making audiences leave lighter than they entered and, at a minimum, humming, whistling, or failing to singing irrepressible classic moments, like the Queen of the Night’s aria or Papageno and Papagena’s charming birdsong duet. Infectious joy seemed to have opening night off.
Much of the problem was in the timing. Conductor Robert Spano offered a sensitive interpretation of the score and created great balance, preventing the orchestra from playing over the singers, which happens too often at the HGO. But the insistently lethargic tempo—from the overture all the way to the bitter end—created monotony. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde from just a few years ago felt shorter, and the second half of this Magic Flute left me longing for the five-hour Götterdämmerung to come.
The choice to stage The Magic Flute in Jeremy Sams’ English translation, rather than the original German, created a series of unexpected problems. I am not, myself, a purist about such matters. Companies seem to be experimenting with translation of late, especially for an opera like The Magic Flute, which contains so much spoken dialogue. And yet the timing of the language and the music never quite seemed quite aligned, which made the sluggish tempo more pronounced.
Also, although perhaps it should not, weak acting often feels forgivable through the veil of another language, without which this Magic Flute too often felt like high school theater.
Voices to admire
There were, however, many voices to admire. David Portillo made a fine HGO debut as a sweet and charming Tamino and paired particularly well with Nicole Heaston’s powerful and affecting Pamina. The pairs in the opera worked beautifully. The sweet concord of Michael Sumuel’s Papageno and Pureum Jo’s Papagena made for marvelous moments in spite of the ill-advised hamming up of the disguised Papagena, whose matronly lunch-lady left much to be desired.
The pairs in the opera worked beautifully.
Sumuel was a wonderful Papgeno. One of the pleasures of the last few seasons at the HGO has been to watch this singer flourish, first as an HGO Studio Art and then in powerful subsequent performances in Don Giovanni, Die Fledermaus, and La bohème. Bravo, HGO, for nurturing such talent.
With respect to singing, some of what should be the most celestial moments seemed at sixes and sevens. The Magic Flute features two threesome—three ladies in the employ of the Queen of the Night and three Spirits who serve as guides. The ladies struggled to sing together and the spirits often strained, introducing unintended discord into the evening.
This is an opera structured around oppositions between good and evil, reason and sensuality, and men and women, which are embodied by Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. Morris Ray’s powerful Sarastro suffers from the odd nasal quality he brought to his previous HGO performances in Showboat and Don Giovanni while Kathryn Lewak proved a compromised Queen of the Night.
This was, in part, a consequence of production choices. Bob Crowley’s costuming made her a strange and unpleasing creature of the night. She looked like a peacock-blue amalgam of Stevie Nicks, Elvira, and a zombie, a clumsiness echoed in the odd costuming of her ladies who made their magic with bizarre feather-dusters. The second of the Queen of the Night’s greatest vocal moments, when she soars into the opera’s iconic coloratura passage, felt accurate but forced. Perhaps this resulted from the direction to manhandle her daughter throughout the scene, a choice that robbed this moment of celestial music.
Perhaps the greatest flaw of this production rests not in its identifiable flaws but in the fact that it felt merely adequate. The Magic Flute cracks open the walls of the ordinary world to reveal something mystical beneath: an ancient struggle between light and darkness plays out as lovers defeat monsters and endure brutal trials. Where was the sense of transport?
This is a question worth asking about the current season. A very fine Otello preceded a lackluster Cosí fan tutte and a recycled Madame Butterfly viewers saw, with the same Cio-Cio San, just a few years ago. Not all hopes can be pinned on the likely-magnificent Wagner to come.
After all, a Magic Flute without much magic is still just a lump of wood.