Zauber-less Flute: the Boston Lyric Opera’s late Mozart

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David Cushing as Sarastro Deborah Selig as Pamina in BLO’s Magic Flute. Photo Eric-Antoniou.

David Cushing as Sarastro Deborah Selig as Pamina in BLO’s Magic Flute. Photo Eric-Antoniou.

The Magic Flute
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Kelly Rourke (after Emmanuel Schikaneder)

Conductor – David Angus
Stage Director – Leon Major
Set Designer – John Conklin
Costume Designer – Nancy Leary
Lighting Designer – Mark Stanley
Lyrics and Projected English Titles – Kelley Rourke
Wigs and Makeup Designer – Jason Allen

Tamino – Zach Borichevsky
Pamina – Deborah Selig
Papageno – Andrew Garland
Monostatos – Neal Ferreira
Queen of the Night – So Young Park
First Lady – Meredith Hansen
Second Lady – Michelle Trainor
Third Lady – Nicole Rodin
Sarastro – David Cushing
First Spirit Messenger – David Kravitz
Second Spirit Messenger – Omar Najmi
Third Spirit Messenger – Isaac Bray
First Boy – Thomas Potts
Second Boy – Timothy O’Brien
Third Boy – Andrew Peruzzi
Papagena – Chelsea Basler

I’ve always thought it was a terrible idea to stage opera overtures. The music is there to help set the mood for what’s to follow, to allow you to open the magic casements of your imagination and picture for yourself what’s going to happen later—and for the only time to concentrate completely on the music itself. But these days, it’s almost impossible to see any opera performance that doesn’t have a staged overture, and all too often the staging has nothing to do with the music we’re hearing (last season’s Boston Lyric Opera Flying Dutchman was one of the worst offenders in this regard). But it turns out there’s something even worse than staging an overture, and it happened at the Lyric’s new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, at the Shubert Theatre, closed October 13). Not only did director Leon Major, BLO’s former artistic director, stage Mozart’s sublime Overture, he actually interrupted it with an extended passage of spoken dialogue—an expository scene added to this production’s reconceived version of the plot. This Magic Flute, billed as the “world premiere” of an “English adaptation of Mozart’s beloved masterpiece,” is set not in Mozart’s imaginary ancient Egypt (BLO’s Magic Flute in 2000 was part of its “Egyptian season,” along with Verdi’s Aida and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten), but in the Yucatan. Major was evidently inspired by a profound experience he once had traveling there with his family.

I was, though with some trepidation, looking forward to this new conception. The last opera Mozart lived to complete, The Magic Flute is technically a Singspiel—a “song play,” a popular musical with songs, arias, and ensembles connected by spoken dialogue. Its notoriously incoherent German libretto, by the comedian and theatrical entrepreneur Emmanuel Schikaneder, combined Masonic images and an elevated moral vision with the broad farcical elements of folk-comedy. The story makes so little logical sense, it almost doesn’t matter whether it takes place in Egypt or on the moon or on a World War I battlefield (as in the disappointing Kenneth Branagh movie version). Or even the Yucatan.

It turned out that changing the location of the story wasn’t this production’s biggest problem. The “creative team” of Major, set designer John Conklin, and libretto writer Kelley Rourke not only changed the setting but also changed the plot, adding a modern frame story in which four college students are on a field trip to explore Mayan ruins, and one them, Tommy (Mozart’s Prince Tamino), is bitten by a snake (Mozart’s Tamino is merely chased by one). He then hallucinates—instead of actually living—the bizarre adventures that follow. Rourke didn’t translate the words into rhymed English so much as re-write them, and to facilitate the new material, the team also put some of the musical numbers in a different order.

Major says that his motive for these changes was to make the opera more “relevant” (ominous word)—or as designer Conklin put it, “to free the inner essence of the piece to a contemporary psyche.” This gave Rourke, who wrote the new rhymed English lyrics, an excuse to remove all the condescending anti-feminist remarks in the original. Unfortunately, she replaced them with pop psychobabble about “discovering yourself,” “looking within to find your light,” “staying on the course of ordered action” (whatever that means), and, incessantly, “keeping to the Path” (as in some 12-step program?). She also added a coarse slangy lingo: “I got no parents, and that’s cool” “All I want is a kiss, just one lousy kiss.” “Sarastro cremates what he touches.” “Don’t come near me, you filthy creep!”

At least this slang was comprehensible. I had to resort to the supertitles to decipher the more abstruse language, with its unmusical, unintelligible, and unsingable grammatical inversions: “Endless cycles of life and death each one the next precedes.” “In you I shall myself discover.” “Suppressing the depths, now he dwells on the peaks.” Many of the rhyme words were stressed on the wrong musical syllable (confi-DENCE, disso-NANCE, desti-KNEE), there were too many off-rhymes (danger/waver, trial/goodbye, overwhelming/help me), and too frequently single syllables were stretched out over several notes (in a singing translation that’s regarded as cheating). One of Mozart’s most ravishing and poignant arias is the desperate heroine Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden” (“I feel that all is lost”), when she thinks that Tamino has abandoned her. There’s a rising phrase that ends with a series of heartbreaking hesitations, a kind of sob built into the musical phrasing. But Rourke’s “translation” had no place for such hesitations, so soprano Deborah Selig (“Pam”) left them out, draining this great aria of its emotional climax.

Although much of the spoken dialogue was eliminated (abbreviating the playing time to just over two hours), BLO claimed that none of the music was cut. But in fact some of Mozart’s crucial repeats were eliminated, including the second verse of the wise high priest Sarastro’s noble bass aria “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (“In these holy halls”). This omission shifted the weight of importance away from Sarastro, the spiritual center of Mozart’s music, making the less important character Monostatos, Sarastro’s comically villainous servant, much more central. In the Branagh film, the star performance is unquestionably René Pape as Sarastro; here, the role of Sarastro was so diminished that even the hierarchy of the curtain calls was changed, so that David Cushing (Sarastro), who in this leading role should have been one of the last people to take a bow, took his before Neal Ferreira (Monostatos).

In this version, Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, Mozart’s polar opposites of good and evil, were once married, and Pamina is their daughter. The idea here, then, is not that Light (Sarastro) should triumph over Darkness (the Queen of the Night), but that to be a full human being, one needs to balance both. As Rourke has it, “You need courage, kindness, and discretion./You must align instinct and reason.” But the Queen of the Night is depicted here (as in the original) not just as merely “dark” and instinctive, but truly evil, a monster who, singing very high notes, tries to get her daughter to murder Sarastro. Just stating the new moral never made it read in theatrical terms. It never had any real impact as an idea.

David Angus, a solid conductor, got some refined and sleek playing from the orchestra (though what sounded like an amplified glockenspiel made the magic bells sound coarse). But Angus’s pacing seemed rushed even when it didn’t seem fast. It lacked real momentum. He just didn’t take the time to allow the most sublime music to breathe. The shifts in the order of the musical numbers also contributed to the clumsy stop-and-start pacing of the whole production. Are we wrong to assume that Mozart himself might know better?

Major’s staging had its own problems. Some of Mozart’s most magical and mysterious moments were simply cop-outs as stage images. The profound ritual purifications that the lovers and their friend, the bird-catcher Papageno, must go through are accompanied by music of somber awe. Admittedly, it’s rare to find a production that lives up to the terrors this music inspires (it’s the only disappointment in the wonderful Ingmar Bergman movie version). Here, for the solemn ritual, Major had “Tommy” and “Pam” dimly lit, simply crisscross the back of the stage, while front and center Papageno sat cross-legged eating a banana. Major staged music for another ritual test as Tommy and Pam’s wedding. The excellent chorus sang entirely off-stage (saving money on costumes?), and leaving the stage shockingly empty at the end. Even set designer John Conklin’s Mayan pyramid, a cynosure at the beginning, went MIA. So that while the chorus was singing its triumphant celebration, what we were actually looking at was… nothing.

Costume designer Nancy Leary provided “Pam” (poor soprano Deborah Selig), a college poet on this field trip, with one of the dowdiest costumes you could imagine: a frumpy brown dress and gray sweater—as seen from the auditorium. If this was all Tommy’s hallucination, why couldn’t he at least hallucinate “Pam” as a princess in a more flattering dress? Sarastro wore heavy Mayan armor clearly meant to be imposing, a focus of attention (say, if he were seated on a throne). So it was odd to see Cushing clumsily sauntering around the stage like just one of the other (priestly) guys.

So all this supposed clarification, this new “relevance,” ended up being at least as confusing as the original, except that it removed the awe and mystery and surprise so central to Mozart.

The singing itself was mostly adequate, if not much more. Zach Borichevsky as Tamino probably had the best voice—clear, firm, pleasing—though like most of his young colleagues his singing didn’t yet have the stylistic elegance one craves in Mozart. Deborah Selig had a pretty tone, diva-diction (“Cahn you hear me?”), but little warmth. She sang everything as if it were a concert aria. Baritone Andrew Garland was a pleasant Papageno, but his character was defined (and undermined) by Rourke’s charmless hipster slang. Papageno’s irresistible scene with Papagena (the delightful soprano Chelsea Basler) was charmingly sung, but compromised by turning their elation about having countless offspring into a silly sit-com argument about whether their first child should be a boy or a girl (so much for the elimination of sexism).

The biggest hand went to coloratura soprano So Young Park as a glamorous Queen of the Night, in low-cut silver lamé. Though her tone was steely, she firmly nailed her stratospheric high notes, but the Queen’s rapid pinpoint triplets (even harder that the high notes) were blurry. Not a native English speaker, Park had a hard time getting Rourke’s English across, though to her credit she seemed to be trying harder than some of the others.

Tenor Neal Ferreira was an effective Monostatos, a sexual predator and a bully turned amusingly dainty by the magic bells. David Cushing’s resonant bass seemed perfectly suited to Sarastro, but he sounded dryer and rougher than I’ve heard him before, and his singing lacked a legato line.

Baritone David Kravitz was fine as the Speaker, who gets to sing one of the noblest lines of music Mozart ever wrote—about friendship, in the original—though the part lay a little low for him and Angus didn’t allow that profound moment to stand out. Later, Kravitz became part of a trio that Mozart composed as a duet for two other priests. The three ladies serving the Queen of the Night (Meredith Hansen, Michelle Trainor, and Nicole Rodin) seemed to be having a jolly time arguing about which one would keep watch over Tamino, though accurate pitch and ensemble didn’t seem to be a priority. Their comic shtick could have been in any production of The Magic Flute. And while it was sweet to have three actual boys (as opposed to the usual mezzo-sopranos) harmonizing the otherworldly music of the Three Boys, these three adorable kids weren’t quite up to the difficulty of the music, and the stilted language they were forced to sing surely didn’t help.

Unlike the BLO’s misguided Flying Dutchman, an opera not likely to return to Boston in the near future, The Magic Flute is popular enough to turn up soon again, to challenge other stage directors and conductors—artists who might trust the composer more than the present ones, or might more deeply understand the way Mozart’s sublime music and Schikaneder’s theatrical absurdities make a memorable if imperfect partnership. We live in hope.

About the author

Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Lloyd Schwartz likely saw a different performance than we did; I had somewhat different reaction to the singing (my comment appears at The Boston Musical
    Intelligencer.) But he’s spot on in describing the havoc unleashed on the story and the language. He doesn’t mention one of the worst transgressions, having the Queen of the Night reunited (remarried?) with Sarastro rather than being cast into oblivion. This soupy resolution reminded me of a Glimmerglass production of Don Giovanni in which the Don was cast not into the flames of hell but into a wading pool while soft rain sprinkled on him. The director in that case explained that Mozart had too kind a heart to intend his hero to suffer perdition. If these people don’t like what Mozart wrote, they should lay off his music!

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