A review of Seattle Opera's production of "The Magic Flute," conducted by Gary Thor Wedow and directed by Chris Alexander.

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Opera Review |

Among all the versions I’ve seen over the years, I cannot recall a “Magic Flute” that came close to Seattle Opera’s new production in one fascinating respect. Witnessing it at McCaw Hall on Saturday evening and Sunday made me feel the way I surely would have felt if I had been in Emanuel Schikaneder’s suburban Viennese theater when Mozart’s great opera premiered in 1791.

Schikaneder, the actor-singer who wrote the libretto and played the first Papageno, was the manager of a troupe that presented operas, often of a fairy-tale character, in an atmosphere far removed from the “high art” tone that nowadays attaches to opera and other forms of “serious music.” Decidedly not aristocratic, the audience came largely from the middle and lower classes, and it came with a grass-roots predilection for folk music, a taste for imaginative innovation and, most of all, an eagerness for sheer unpretentious fun.

Crucial aspects of the new production include Robert Dahlstrom and Robert Schaub’s abstract, pyramid-and-triangle dominated set, Duane Schuler’s brilliantly effective lighting, Zandra Rhodes’ gorgeous costumes, Rosa Mercedes’ graceful yet often hilarious choreography and conductor Gary Thor Wedow’s authoritative musical leadership. All of this abetted stage director Chris Alexander in the creation of an intoxicatingly imaginative show blending beauty with irreverence, and seriousness with — yes — sheer fun. I was quite jealous of all the kids in the audience for whom this “Magic Flute” must have been an ideal first exposure to opera.

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There was much talk in advance about how the production would use technology for imaginative purposes. There were indeed some telling examples of that, especially in the use of “black light” to show us personages seemingly suspended in midair. But many of the “special effects” were refreshingly low-tech. A group of Anubis figures, suggestive of the opera’s Masonic links with ancient Egypt and serving as informal stagehands, at one moment charmingly waved birds around on the ends of long poles. At another point, the Three Boys (listed in the program as Three Spirits, and in this production actually played by two girls and a boy) entered on scooters that weren’t even motorized.

Alexander sensibly left the curtain down almost throughout the overture, of which Wedow led one of the best performances I can remember. Offbeat accents that too many conductors neglect were realized with a light but effective touch, and the orchestra sounded splendid, as it (and Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus) did throughout the opera, except for a few solos associated with Tamino’s magic flute that made surprisingly little aural impression.

On stage, both casts were unfailingly effective in dramatic terms, but Saturday’s principals for the most part outshone Sunday afternoon’s vocally. The exceptions were in the roles of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. Ilya Bannik’s flawed German diction and lack of real legato were compounded by the weakness of his low notes, and he tended to get ahead of Wedow’s beat. Keith Miller, if not the most majestic Sarastro one can imagine, was better in these respects. As to the Queen, I was clearly at odds with most of the Saturday audience, who gave Emily Hindricks the biggest roar of approval when curtain calls were taken. Given the clarity of her top notes, and some lovely tone, this was understandable, but I found her singing — and excessive screaming — somewhat overemotional. On Sunday, Mari Moriya, after a shaky start, achieved an aptly cold, cut-glass quality in the second half of her second aria.

Of two dramatically convincing Taminos (Tamini?), Saturday’s John Tessier sang with the subtler artistry, whereas the strong-voiced Jonathan Boyd was insistently loud and tended to biff out accents too emphatically. For Pamina, there was no contest: Christine Brandes had the role down perfectly, and sang it beautifully. Hanan Alattar’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” was so melodically unfocused that it was hard even to listen to with due attention, and though her voice is pleasant enough in tone, she lacked clarity and firmness. Both Papagenos were excellent: Philip Cutlip is perhaps a tad more adorable as an actor, but Leigh Melrose runs him close vocally. Their duet with Ani Maldjian’s Papagena was supplemented by a slew of prefigured offspring, to totally adorable effect. All the other roles were strongly taken.

Alexander’s ending, with Tamino and Pamina turning their backs on the older generation, comes as a thought-provoking surprise. In sum, this is a truly magic “Flute,” musically superb if not perfect, theatrically masterly and irresistibly entertaining. I’ve never enjoyed the work so much.

Bernard Jacobson: bernardijacobson@comcast.net

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