Toby or not Toby: 'The Magic Flute' answers the question with flair

Unaccustomed as it is to fully staged opera, the Tobias Theater at Newfields accommodates most of the

Everyone's a winner: The full cast in reconciled finale of Indianapolis Opera's "The Magic Flute"

essentials in Indianapolis Opera's production of "The Magic Flute." The cast sang at a pretty high level, and the acting, while varying from character to character, had a long measure of authenticity. As seen Saturday night, the small orchestra was conducted ably by Scott Schoonover, and coordination with the singers faltered only in some passages by the offstage chorus.

It was understandable that a unit set would have to serve multiple purposes, and thus presented a kind of a jumble to the eye. But all of the Mozart opera's settings are fanciful to begin with, so to see the arches of the temple representing the triumph of enlightenment amid the rocky landscape into which the hero has wandered in the first scene wasn't hard to absorb. Special effects don't go much beyond thunder and lightning, but an imaginative use was made of a device as simple as handheld flashlights when the Three Ladies (well sung by Anne Fuchs, Victoria Korovljev, and Katherine Kincaid) offer guidance to Tamino and Papageno during their dark trial.

At the start, Tamino, the princely hero, comes on the scene looking for an escape from a pursuing serpent. The creature is not represented at all by a cameo appearance. It's true that it's uncommon for the menacing reptile to avoid looking ridiculous in other productions. But I kind of missed the snake. Here, its comeuppance is delivered offstage by the Three Ladies who attend the Queen of the Night, who is soon to appear as the show's spectacular villain.

More disconcerting is Tamino's costume, which looks formal and military, epaulets on the shoulders, not the hunting outfit that explains his wandering away from his realm. Regardless, he is a stranger ready to be beguiled by a portrait of the captured Pamina, presented to him after he meets the bird-catcher Papageno. The native works for food and drink from the Queen of the Night, who in this production wears a darkly shining costume, imposing enough striding about as she rants and complains about her missing daughter in virtuoso phrases.

Director A. Scott Parry works sensibly with any limitations the Toby presents. While stunning vocally, Hein Jung moves among her colleagues, singing with focused ferocity  rather than enthroned afar, surrounded by stars. In fact, showing how the characters relate to one another benefits by reducing the mythical and symbolic elements that often attend "Magic Flute" productions. Here implausibilities are linked to believable human emotions and conflicts; any loss of magic may be seen as minimal and often practical. The natural earnestness and clear vocal projection of Grant Knox as Tamino and Rebecca Krynski Cox as Pamina went far to establish the sympathy they need from audiences otherwise entertained by the comedy, the spookiness, and the recondite Masonic aspects of this opera. 

The production's most crucial omission is the reduction of the testing trials of the young couple by water and fire in pantomime. Here they move straight into acceptance by Sarastro's priests after they meet the challenge of maintaining silence. Proof of their rectitude and courage is thus somewhat shortchanged, and Pamina's role in boldly leading her beloved recedes in a way that minimizes the opportunity to present a strong woman to today's audiences.

Today's audiences are understandably likely to be offended by the original's buffoonish, lascivious caricature of a black man in Sarastro's servant Monostatos. But he ought to have been made outlandish in some other way; it was not enough that Will Upham portrayed him well. The brief, unplanned encounter between Monostatos and the exploring Papageno, which frightens both men into fleeing, is hard to understand if they don't look exotic to each other. 

For that matter, Papageno's costume ought to have featured more the feathers he uses to  hide his humanness from his feathered prey. In all other respects, Jason Cox exuded a comically appealing life force as Papageno, rich vocally and in an effusive variety of movement and expression, complemented eventually by Rachel Purvis as Papagena, the birdcatcher's long-desired match. He even played the pipes Papageno uses to attract the birds, a five-note pattern introduced as a personal signature in his entrance aria.

With an excellent, regal Sarastro sung by the Ghanaian-American bass Kofi Hayford, it might have been apt to challenge contemporary sensitivities by casting a black man as the duly punished Monostatos. It would have helped put across the evenhanded interest in justice characteristic of Sarastro, a leader unwilling to favor an erring servant just because he was "blood." 

This delicate matter brings up the dated and (some might hope outdated) triumphant masculinity in the libretto. This is not the first production of "The Magic Flute" I've seen that ends in a reconciliation of the opposing forces. Sarastro's project of human betterment is celebrated in chorus as universal and available to everyone, even the Queen of the Night and Monostatos. "Our side won, your side lost" is a consummation still devoutly wished in a world that honors victory, with clear labeling of good and evil. 

In a lengthy program note, director Parry handles his more pacific interpretation by bringing in Jungian insights into the mixed nature we all harbor and the need to find balance between opposites. This would find it appropriate, for example, to honor the Queen of the Night's maternal loyalty with forgiveness for her misleading representation of Pamina's plight. Without a search for balance, we can all be led astray by allowing our dominant aspects to take total control, runs the Jungian approach, as I understand it. 

The idealism behind the Freemasonry to which Mozart subscribed presumably allows for this kind of modern adjustment of the finale and the libretto's earlier warning against listening to women. So seen, "The Magic Flute" has an acceptable modern significance to add to its still vibrant capacity to delight. And that was evident in Indianapolis Opera's production, which concluded this afternoon.

[Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]


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