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An A for Ambition

West Bay plays fast and loose with Mozart's 'Magic Flute'

By Philip Collins

WEST BAY OPERA'S production of The Magic Flute attempts to imbue Mozart's most fantastical stage work with a modern-day spirit and vernacular. It comes with a new, campy English translation by Ross Halper and a whole grab bag of sight gags and gimmickry. An A for ambition is in order, and the show's p's & q's aren't bad, either; Todd Donovan's Papageno and Marta Johansen's Queen of the Night are knockouts.

Johann Emanuel Schikaneder's book for The Magic Flute is a slippery affair to begin with, and its eccentric collisions of farcical hokum, solemn ritual and romance drew plenty of flack back in 1791. In order to save the fair damsel Pamina, Prince Tamino and his wacky bird-catcher sidekick, Papageno, must deal with the melodies of the Queen of the Night and a series of perilous trials in Sarastro's Temple of Isis. Their quest for love and enlightenment involves monsters, magic spells, tacked-on philosophizing and monstrous suspensions of disbelief. In short, it's got all the makings of a popular '90s hit.

Last Saturday's performance was spotty, increasingly so as the show unfolded over its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Much of the singing was actually quite fine; the acting held up for the most part; and the orchestra's playing under the baton of acting general director David Sloss featured some handsome renderings.

So what was the problem? It is on theatrical terms that West Bay's Magic Flute falls short of its mark. The production is strewn with miscalculations in staging. In some instances, stage director Jonathon Field's ideas reach beyond the cast's abilities and the available technical means, while at other times, his realizations of the show's potentially spectacular visual elements are disappointingly threadbare.

Conjuring up the opening scene's monster by having someone writhing under a sheet is good for a laugh by virtue of its sheer preposterousness, but there are later occasions where such frugality is conspicuously inadequate. The idea of transporting Tamino and Pamina onto the stage via a pair of levitating pyramids (imagine dangling pup tents) during the grand finale, for instance, comes off as amateurish. The couple's supposedly terrifying trial--walking past lines of robed men with outstretched hands--is equally barren of any discernible theatrical strategy.

SATURDAY'S CAST, most of which trades off with an alternate lineup each performance, was outstanding. Donovan's Papageno was the show's indefatigable energizer. His vocal renditions were radiant and his banter crisp.

Throughout, Donovan's diction was accountable to Halper's libretto, which is at its most brilliant during Papageno's opening song, "I am a man of widespread fame." Halper peppers his text with trendy references, often to ill effect, but in this case, they really work. "I'm no action hero, but it pays the rent" and "If only I could get some chicks" are particularly funny because they capture the original version's gist.

Megan Starr-Levitt's cameo bits as the Old Woman and Papagena left too little time to savor her animated presence and beaming soprano. The Queen of the Night was also afforded less stage time than one would like, although Johansen used every measure to the utmost.

Her renditions of the work's two most recognizable solos--"Oh, tremble not, my son, arise" and "The wrath of Hell"--danced across the celestial reaches with graceful precision while also finessing descents into passages of earthly range without a hitch.

As the production's only Tamino, Thayer Coburn was tenderly voiced. Coburn established the young prince's vulnerability but conveyed little in the way of the character's maturation in Act II, where his voice occasionally got swallowed by the orchestra and fellow singers. Marnie Breckenridge's Pamina delivered an accomplished dramatic performance with bright singing that turned strident in the upper range.

As the three spirits, youngsters Alan Grimes, Jesse Lampert and Thomas Allen supplied some endearing episodes, but Field overworks their charms by assigning them mime detail in nearly every scene. There could hardly have been enough rehearsal time to go around, and as a result their singing episodes suffered drastically.

Baritone David Hess' performance as Sarastro was solid if a bit staid. Few baritones could hope to accommodate this role's subterranean range, but Hess did so with tonal clarity and fine projection. As the Moorish slave Monostatos, Halper (the libretto's translator) was dramatically arresting, if unevenly voiced.

With the advantage of pick-up rehearsals, it's possible that the production could do better justice to both Mozart and Halper during the weeks to come--maybe even shave off some minutes, too. Anyway, it's pleasant to at least hear the opera's sublime melodies rendered so fetchingly.

The Magic Flute plays Friday­Saturday at 8:15pm and Sunday at 2pm through June 1 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $30/$15. (415/424-9999)

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From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of Metro

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