Saturday, June 9, 2018

Concluding its classical season, ISO produces a splendid 'Magic Flute,' audaciously staged

Saturated as "The Magic Flute" is in Masonic symbols, the relative obscurity of their significance pales for the general populace beside the opera's eclectic brilliance, which has sustained it in all-ages appeal to the present day.

That truth was reflected in every aspect of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's staged production of the opera to conclude its two-week "Mozart's Last Year" festival. Seen Friday night in the production's Hilbert Circle Theatre premiere, the show brimmed with 21st-century imagination, helped immeasurably by the immortal 1791 score and its chockablock libretto.

Its chief creator and the opera's instigator, Emanuel Schickaneder was a producer of the sort we can see as modern: gifted with outreach values, able to be both high-toned and streetwise, as long as he could bring the Viennese public along. He concocted the text with a fellow Mason, and the composer's enthusiasm for the assignment as the most immortal Mason involved is evident at every point.

But what is most evident in the ISO's staging was the breadth of inspiration the show commands. Different levels of playing areas, with staircases connecting them, help reinforce the various levels of musical wealth — from formal to frivolous — with which Mozart larded his score.  Credit goes to the top of the production team: stage director Samuel Helfrich and lighting/set designer Oona Curley. Their work was supported by the restrained gallimaufry of Kat Jeffery's costume designs.

Music director Krzysztof Urbanski: maestro of the revels
I was a lot less certain I was going to be so charmed by this "Magic Flute" right after Krzysztof Urbanski got the overture under way, with the ensemble showing fine coordination despite being separated and distributed around the set. The distraction of Monostatos, who's sprawled in a white bathrobe on one of the couches, putting the moves on a resistant Pamina, offered some comic foreshadowing we could have done without. Less disruptive was the simultaneous, guarded exchange of glances (with minimal gesturing)  between Sarastro and the Queen of Night on the top level to the audience's left.

The "Magic Flute" overture comes firmly down on the earnest side of the opera. I assume Helfrich was trying to signal that the work belongs to a mixed genre not easily categorized, and thus some funny business is germane from the outset. Understood, yet the dilution of that magnificent overture was a high price to pay. As the action opened, however, Helfrich's handling of the singers achieved an early balance and sustained it almost unmarred through the final chorus two hours later.

Only three other times did he seem to me to make odd choices. I can't interpret the Three Ladies, servants of the formidable Queen of Night,* tossing the scary serpent of the first scene onto the wandering prince Tamino as he lies exhausted on one of the couches. As agents of the Queen that the prince will shortly oppose, have they been assigned to enlist his services by flinging a fake challenge at him, then "killing" the reptile, thus indicating he ought to return the favor by agreeing to rescue the Queen's daughter? Granted, the serpent is mainly an excuse to get the action rolling, and so it does here. But what was the point of the trickery?

Also questionable was having the lovers under their crucial second-act trials disappear from view, emerging after the first one, by fire, with comical fright wigs owing something to the design of Tom
Tom Hulce as a teased-wig Mozart
Hulce's hair as the title character of the film "Amadeus." The subsequent trial by water is negotiated without a concluding sight gag. Finally, why does Papageno, considering suicide after the apparent loss of his Papagena, come forward to solicit pleas from the audience not to go ahead with his plan? (And of course he got them.)

On the other hand, members of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir were well deployed as supporters of Sarastro, costumed in dressy-casual style, some of the men pausing to draw reflectively on pipes, singing in sync on several levels. And I liked the coordinated, multilevel movements of the Three Spirits (sturdily sung by Elise Hurwitz, Anna Donnelly, and Jessica True), who function as a sort of suicide-prevention hot line for both Papageno and Pamina. The serious business of Tamino's assignment, and its plangent music, was underlined well by Julian Morris and Joseph McBrayer as the Priests and the Armored Men.

Spectacular ferocity: Katheryn Lewek
Continuing the Masonic focus on threes, Alissa Dessoye, Avery Boettcher, and Emily Warren were formidable — both ethereal and menacing — as the Queen of Night's loyal Ladies. But there would be little virtue in their vocal and physical poise were it not  for the commanding performance of Katheryn Lewek, an experienced Queen, in that role. Visibly pregnant but without displaying negative effects from the hopeful burden she's now carrying, Lewek gave a brilliant account of her role, divided between pathos and fury. Her second-act aria, "Der Hölle Rache köcht in meinem Herzen," drew the most rapturous applause of any number before the final curtain calls.

Lauren Snouffer's Pamina displayed the production's other major female voice. She was a lithe, fervent, determined representative of one of Mozart's most enchanting female characters (rivaling Susanna in "The Marriage of Figaro"). I'm not among those critics forever measuring opera performances against past joys, but whenever Pamina is sung this well, particularly in "Ach, ich fuhl's," I get chills recalling my first "Flute" four decades ago, with the young Kathleen Battle's Pamina in a Michigan Opera Theater production.

Tenor John Tessier, projecting so much better than he seemed to in last week's Mozart Requiem performance, displayed the steadfastness and lyrical allure that Tamino needs to have. He is an exemplar, after all, of the virtues Freemasonry was established to promote, and which are enshrined in "The Magic Flute." He thus contrasted well with Papageno, the prince's enlisted chum and reluctant companion, who was given a sprightly vigor and boy-next-door appeal by baritone Sean Michael Plumb. His rapport with Christine Taylor Price's effervescent Papagena was immediately apparent, and made the couple's eagerness to get busy producing little Papagenos and Papagenas amusing and believable.

With hyperbole many have since cited as justifiable, George Bernard Shaw once wrote that Sarastro's was the only music fit to issue from the mouth of God. Peixin Chen's stalwart basso gave the requisite dignity and godlike eminence to Sarastro, whose genuineness as a ruler inclined to forgive was emphasized in the final scene, as he reaches out to the defeated  Queen of Night.

There had been some tongue-clucking and even hissing from the audience as supertitles reinforced the Masonic vision of male superiority and its link to virtue. But those inclined to bring 21st-century cultural standards to "The Magic Flute" would do well to remember the opera's portrayal of unenlightened male power — in the oafish villain Monostatos, a kind of proleptic poster boy for today's #MeToo movement — as well as the somewhat lovable, but far from heroic, action and speech of Papageno. And if people were going to heckle, why did no cheers greet Pamina's line after the lovers are reunited and permitted to talk again: "I myself will lead you, as love guides me," followed by her twice-repeated directive to Tamino to play his magic flute? This is a strong woman, sisters.
An example of the artwork used to promote ISO's "Flute."

The orchestra's central but never distracting position brought the unity of "The Magic Flute" to the fore under Urbanski's sure guidance. In a couple of places, accompanied recitative and ensemble intricacy found the violins scrambling to keep pace accurately. Showcased by her forward position in the orchestra and frequent solos as well as by the opera title and its very theme, principal flutist Karen Moratz (her name an anagram of the composer's — how perfect is that!) fully deserved the solo bow the conductor invited her to take at the end.

*I follow the practice of a few commentators in not putting "the" between "of" and "Night." "Queen of the Night" implies that a particular night represents the quasi-villain's rule. It reminds me uncomfortably of the old TV show "Queen for a Day." "Queen of Night" properly indicates that half of each 24-hour cycle is in this magical monarch's control, as she uses the power of darkness to hold sway.

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