Delightful staging, mixed singing in Dallas Opera’s “Magic Flute”

Mon Oct 21, 2019 at 2:16 pm
By J. Robin Coffelt

Paolo Fanale (Tamino) and Andrea Carroll (Pamina) star in Dallas Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Photo: Karen Almond

Mozart’s The Magic Flute, is a delightful though somewhat incoherent romp as a narrative. Dallas Opera’s current production of the composer’s final opera has preserved the delight and has done its best with the coherence. 

Combining elements of Freemasonry, a dual love plot involving a prince and kidnapped princess and a birdcatcher looking for his helpmate, a couple of villains, and some Egyptian motifs, the plot of Die Zauberflöte is labyrinthine at best. This production tries to connect the elements, through unified costumes and sets.

The single best thing about Dallas Opera’s production is Gerald Scarfe’s whimsical, utterly delightful sets and costumes. Papageno is a yellow-and-green birdman, his Papagena is a floofy but deliciously pretty confection, and Monostatos is utterly ridiculous as a green-skinned man in a full-hipped fat suit and a loincloth. But the Queen of the Night is terrifying in deep purple and black, evoking a Disney-villainess vibe. Her three attendants are also in purple and black, but are decidedly less intimidating—one is attired in a skirt that looks as if it’s covering a giant toilet paper roll, while another has a bodice that ends below her breasts (illusion netting and silver pasties prevent this from being quite as risqué as it sounds).  

Most irresistible of all: during one of Papageno’s arias, supernumeraries in their own hybrid costumes, to match Papageno’s bird-man combo, filled the stage. One request was for a stilt walker, which turned out to be an ostrich-giraffe cross teetering at the back of the stage. There was also a child in a penguin-crocodile outfit, a dancer in a sort of blue mandrill suit, and a variety of other mixtures. This scene was a riotous visual joy. 

Sets were similarly charming. The giant serpent who inexplicably chases Tamino in the opening scene is simultaneously comic, looking like a papier-mâché craft project, and a bit scary, as it should be. Bright colors, especially greens and blues, dominated the geometric sets. For the Queen of the Night’s first aria, she hovered over the stage in a sort of throne attached to a disk; it was a fine effect, and suitably intimidating. This was not the only time Scarfe used vertical space. The three boy sopranos who advise Tamino in his quest to find Pamina glided overhead in a Viking-esque boat.

Sean Michael Plumb as Papageno is a sprightly actor whose baritone is an ideal fit for the role. His introductory “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja,” was pitch-perfect in delivery and fanciful in spirit. 

Morris Robinson, who has an English degree, was an All-American football player, and worked in sales for 3M, has luckily for us all settled on opera as a career. As Sarastro, he brought gravitas, substance, and an extraordinarily rich bass voice to the role. His paean to the Egyptian gods, “O Isis und Osiris,” while a bit gravelly in the first few bars, soon settled into a solemn hymn. 

Paolo Fanale, as Tamino, gave listeners a consistent timbre over his entire tenor range. His innocent “Die Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” in the first act displayed clarity of tone and a bemused pleasure in his circumstances.

The two female leads fared somewhat less well. Andrea Carroll as Pamina has a beautiful soprano, but struggled with pitch in her lower register, notably in her first act duet with Papageno, “Bel Männern, welche Liebe fühlen.” The staging has them sitting with their legs dangling into the pit for part of the aria, and here she was notably flat. 

Jeni Houser, as Pamina’s ethically compromised mother, the Queen of the Night, has one of the most famous roles in all of opera, and one of the most demanding. In her famous Act II aria “Der Hölle Rache,” which requires her to hit a high F repeatedly, she hit the notes, for sure, but lacked projection and presence. Projection was also an issue in her Act I aria “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn.” “Der Hölle Rache” should be terrifying but this was a rather anemic rendition.

Abigail Rethwisch showed her acting as well as singing chops as Papagena. Appearing initially disguised as an old woman, Rethwisch adopted a high, squeaky voice, morphing into her actual pretty soprano when she appears as Papagena, Papageno’s perfect counterpart. Her second act duo with Papageno, “Pa-, pa-, pa-” was as fun and hopeful as one could wish for. The pair’s voices were deliciously complementary in the back-and-forth of the famous aria.

The Queen of the Night’s three attendants, Diana Newman, Samantha Hankey, and Hannah Ludwig, made the most of their trio aria, “Würd ich mein Herz der Liebe weihn,” early in the first act, with excellent pitch and well-balanced and full voices. Brian Frutiger played Monostatos for absolute silliness; Frutiger has a fine tenor, but it was his acting chops that really mattered here. He was the least frightening Monostatos possible—we never took his predatory thoughts about Pamina seriously because he was just too ridiculous. 

The Dallas Opera Chorus, under chorus master Alexander Rom, was well-prepared: pitch, balance, ensemble, and control were all exceptional. 

The orchestra, under conductor Emmanuel Villaume, was solid overall in Mozart’s occasionally tricky score. Some exposed writing in the violins suffered from pitch and ensemble problems, but the balance with the singers was consistently appropriate.

If this particular version of The Magic Flute isn’t an absolute must-see, it’s nonetheless a very enjoyable production with much to recommend it.

The Magic Flute runs through November 3 at the Winspear Opera House.; 214-443-1000.

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