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Dealing With the Devil in Mozart

[whitespace] Beautiful music outpaces stodgy, white-elephant plot in Opera San José's production of 'The Magic Flute'

By Michael J. Vaughn

IN TAKING a conservative, hands-off approach to Mozart's The Magic Flute, Opera San José and its stage director, Daniel Helfgot, have created what you might call a "marble statue" production: beautiful, certainly, but also rather immobile and passionless.

The decision to do The Magic Flute is, in itself, an aesthetic deal with the devil. In exchange for some of the most sublime music ever written for the operatic stage, you get a convoluted, stodgy white elephant of a plot. Written in an allegorical ether world, the opera, much like A Midsummer Night's Dream, cries out for rapid-fire pacing and irreverent, even reckless, staging.

In Hollywood speak, here's the lowdown on the plot, pieced together in 1791 by Mozart and librettist/impresario/singer Emanuel Schikaneder: Guy chased by serpent. Serpent turns into girl group. Girl group takes boy to queen, who begs boy to save daughter from evil wizard. Boy and bird-catcher sidekick confront wizard, who turns out not to be so bad after all. Mother orders daughter to kill wizard; daughter declines. Daughter and boy fall in love, undergo series of vague ritual trials in order to join wizard's country club. Wizard spouts much Freemason propaganda.

Following? Oddly enough, it may be this very scattershot approach to plot construction that allowed Mozart to flex his musical muscles. The "singspiel" format (musical numbers broken up by passages of spoken dialogue) gave the composer the freedom to break from the usual recitative-aria-chorus treadmill and use any ensemble variation he could dream up. He even equipped two of his characters with instruments--hero Tamino's flute and bird-catcher Papageno's glockenspiel--for a little added orchestra/singer interplay.

The vocal highlights in Opera San José's production came mostly from the ingenues. With his foamy-light lyric tenor, Robert McPherson was born to play a role like Tamino. As Pamina (the daughter), Barbara Divis was divine, endowing the opera's most (and possibly only) empathetic character with an appealingly gentle strength. To picture her lush descending lines at the finish of "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" ("The manly breast, overflowing with love"), please visualize a silk burgundy scarf wafting down from a third-story window.

Baritone Brian Carter did yeoman's work with the comically choice role of Papageno (whose desires are more Falstaffian than those of his high-minded colleagues), fusing two-thirds Jeff Daniels from Dumb & Dumber with one-third the Cowardly Lion (during one frightening encounter, I half expected him to say, "I do believe in ghosts--I do, I do, I do!").

MAUREE MAGIL attacked the Queen of the Night's dubious assignment (sing impossible aria, sit backstage for an hour, sing another impossible aria) with admirable vigor, although next time she needs to decide ahead of time if she's really going to sing that high-F staccato in the famed "Der Hölle Rache" ("The Pangs of Hell")--a quarter-step flat is not quite good enough.

David Rohrbaugh's orchestra recovered from some slight discords in the overture to play the rest of the night like born Mozarteans. Other nice touches came in wizard Sarastro's glorious bronze-metallic robes (by B. Modern and Allison Connor) and in Sara Beukers' wig-work: the girl group's (OK, the Three Ladies') powder-blue coifs, the tight Egyptian braids of the temple denizens and, especially, Pamina's flowing, beribboned braids.

That wasn't enough, however, to make the production move. Peter Crompton's sets played it strictly by the Egyptian/Freemason book, while Helfgot's ritualized staging left his singers standing, declaiming and gripping their lapels most of the night. The devil of aesthetics was thus compelled to declare a breach of contract and mete out his punishment on the audience.


The Magic Flute, an Opera San José production, in German with supertitles and alternating casts, plays Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through May 31 at the Montgomery Theater, Market Street and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $30-$48. (408/437-4450).

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From the May 21-27, 1998 issue of Metro.

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