Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Opera Review: Musicians Star in the Magic Flute by Timothy Gaylard

Below is a review of Opera Roanoke's October 21st performance of The Magic Flute,
presented by Washington and Lee University.

Musicians star in The Magic Flute by Timothy Gaylard

Opera Roanoke brought a welcome performance of Mozart's beloved The Magic Flute to Lexington last night. The almost sold-out house responded positively to an evening of entertaining theatrical and musical delights. In the overture, the orchestra, comprised of select members of the Roanoke Symphony, demonstrated a cohesive and tight ensemble under the deft direction of Scott Williamson. In particular, the wind section impressed with playing of virtuosic bravura and expressive color. For the rest of the evening, Maestro Williamson and his players provided magnificent support to the vocal cast.

The opera itself featured very talented singers, some of whom were performing their roles for the very first time. At the core of the comedy in this work is the character Papageno, here played by the young baritone Joseph Lim. Not only did he sing beautifully but he endeared himself to the audience with his wit, defiance and petulance. As a serious foil, the role of Tamino was expertly sung by Michael Gallant, whose tenor voice easily negotiated the taxing high tessitura of the part. In the part of his beloved Pamina, soprano Shelly Milam acted with effective pathos and strength and sang with lyrical sweetness. Lindsey Russell, as the Queen of the Night, gamely donned a male costume, but sang with the appropriate force and range, including the famous high Fs, dispatching them with pin-point accuracy. Bass Matthew Curran played the wise Sarastro intelligently, letting his noble humanity shine through and singing the low notes of the role with distinction.

In smaller roles, there were some especial standouts. The Three Ladies, sung by Chelsea Bonagura, Stacy Dove, and Leah Melfi, blended well and vied comically with each other over Tamino in the first scene. Tenor Adam McAllister was suitably scary and menacing in the unsavory part of Monostatos. Andrew Ellis and Andrew Otter were particularly impressive as the Armored Men, intoning powerfully the choral tune in the finale. Keith Reed's baritone was sonorous and weighty in the crucial part of the "Speaker" who leads Tamino on the right path to enlightenment. Anna Sterrett, was amusingly coy as the disguised Papagena and then transformed herself into an energetic and playful Pocahontas look-alike; the "Pa-pa-pa" duet with Papageno revealed a bright and agile soprano voice.

The audience was also treated to the visual delights of animals, birds, a butterfly, and an attractive temple facade, indicating in part at least the historical location of Williamsburg, instead of the traditional setting of ancient Egypt. Members of the chorus did well in convincing us of their American heritage and they sang with a full and effective sound. When the curtain came down, the audience gave the performers a well-deserved standing ovation.

Timothy Gaylard is Professor of Music at Washington and Lee University.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A few of my favorite things about our Flute

A random & subjective list of ten (or so) favorite things about our new production of
The Magic Flute:

The death of the monster by the Three Ladies (Chelsea, Stacy & Leah) & their awesome power.

(Sabrina and Jonah, our Southwest Va Ballet dancers as the dragon, with the 3 divas far right)

Papageno (Joseph), AKA: "Nature Boy" and "Travel Buddy."

Our 3 Spirits (Miranda, Angela & Logan) dressed as Mozart triplets.

The Queen of the Night's (Lindsay's) first aria.

The Speaker (Keith) as Thomas Jefferson, exuding gravitas.

The Queen of the Night's second aria.

The taming of the wild animals with the Magic Flute.

The hypnotizing of the slaves with the magic bells.

Sarastro (Matthew) as George Washington, and his revolutionary low notes.

(Pamina, Shelly Milam, as Sarastro, Matthew Curran, looks on)

Pamina & Tamino (Shelly & Michael) emerging unscathed from the trials of fire and water.

The Papagena - Papageno (Anna & Joseph) duet and chicken dance. Seriously.

(Anna Sterrett, Papagena and the 3 Spirits: Miranda Jones, Angela Lee and Logan Truesdell)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mozart's Supreme Achievement, Part II

Here is a brief continuation of yesterday's exploration of the thoughtful question, "what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today?"

I have enjoyed reading the Bach and Mozart scholar, Christoph Wolff's new book, Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune, which explores the last 3 years of the composer's life in Vienna from the perspective of his increasing success and rising popularity. Wolff's chapter devoted to TMF is called "What's in a Name?" and, like Cairns (see below), he sees Flute's manifold variety and unity-through-diversity as a major asset. The 35 year-old composer had integrated a "philosophy of music drama in which genre boundaries become porous and conventions increasingly irrelevant."

I don't know how many times I've been asked what the difference is between opera and musical theatre, but The Magic Flute often forms part of the discussion. The short answer is, "whatever the composer calls his or her musical-dramatic work." Mozart called his Da Ponte operas "humorous dramas," and though TMF is referred to as a "Singspiel" (a musical comedy), Mozart called it, "Eine Grosse Oper" (a Grand Opera). It is "grand" in vision and scope, and it is witty and breezy as an Italian dramma giocosa. Like Whitman, Mozart "contains multitudes" within his remarkable imagination.

At the risk of hyperbole, Mozart was able to articulate his creative vision with a clarity achieved by a near-perfect union of form and content. This impossibly flawless balance - the grace and beauty we ascribe to Mozart - is one source of his art's inexhaustible power, and the unmatched universality of this "second-to-none" genius.

To return to practical examples of TMF's success and popularity, it was one of the first pieces of musical theatre to feature "hot off the press" editions of sheet music. Wolff cites its "unusual degree of popularity," noting the individual numbers appearing for sale "in competing editions...only a few weeks after the premiere - something that had never happened before."

Flute was more than just a passing fad with the Viennese public. Wolff reminds us one of its principal themes is "the power of music." This was neither a slogan nor abstract concept. As mentioned below, the Orpheus legend and the origins of music are an important source for Flute. Orpheus "mate" in Christian hagiography is St. Cecilia, patron of music. The 17th century poet, John Dryden's "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day" was the source for 2 major works by Mozart's idol, G. F. Handel. Both Alexander's Feast and Ode for St. Cecilia's Day.* Wolff strengthens the connection between the works by mentioning the German translation of Dryden's poetry, Die Gewalt der Musik (The Power of Music).

Mozart composes the "power of music" throughout his "grand opera" (that is also a "musical comedy" - remember, he is working with "nearly unrestricted possibilities," and is "impervious to labels"). This strength emanates the principal characters, especially the polar opposite royals, the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. If not as extroverted or dynamic in the young initiates/lovers, Pamina and Tamino, it courses like an inexorable undercurrent of passion whenever they take the stage and sing.

The power of music is further evidenced by the orchestration of TMF. Not only is this score Mozart's richest - clarinets and basset horns, three trombones, divided strings - it features the "magic" instruments which set it apart. Tamino's "golden" flute, Papageno's panpipes and glockenspiel all play key roles, and thus, take "center stage" in both the drama and the score.

And what a score! For musicians and conductors, the score is what defines the opera from the pit. As if creating an uncannily brilliant prism, Mozart's orchestration across the final decade of his life continued to develop and evolve. This is nowhere more apparent than in the 7 operas from Idomeneo through Flute.

The orchestra - though small by 19th century standards - displays astonishing variety. 30-some players in the pit play nearly 20 different combinations of instrumentation across a score with 21 individual numbers! Come hear the "humorous drama" as our friends in the RSO bring this score to life. Click on the Jefferson Center link for tickets.

(*Yours truly and my more talented, lovelier half, Amy will be performing Handel's Ode at Greene Memorial UMC. Click here for more info.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mozart's supreme achievement: The Magic Flute

"The coherence of the Magic Flute style - a fusion of [popular] song, Italian bravura aria and buffo ensemble, German chorale, fugue, religious chorus... learned and popular, sacred and profane, spirit and earth, the musical analogue of the drama's high theme of reconciliation - is...Mozart's supreme achievement as a music-dramatist."
(from Mozart and His Operas, by David Cairns)

That is one way of saying Mozart's operatic "swan-song" has a little bit of everything and something for everyone in it's 2 & 1/2 adventurous hours.

My colleague - and our friend on the Arts beat at the Roanoke Times - Mike Allen, asked me "what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today?" One version of my answer will appear in his upcoming story (check out the Roanoke Times on Tuesday, Oct 15 for the story).

The chapter devoted to The Magic Flute in Cairns' book (it is the sacred number 7, no less) is entitled "Mozart the Visionary." In a presentation on Mozart's final trio of operas at the W & L Alumni College this summer, I gave The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito subtitles to match Cosi fan Tutte. The latter is also known as "the school for lovers." In that vein, it's not difficult to dub Clemenza "the school for mercy," and Flute, "the school for enlightenment."

On one level, The Magic Flute is purely an allegory for enlightenment values. A vengeful Queen seeks to murder her enemy and usurp his seat of power, using dark forces and any means necessary. The "enlightened" Sarastro embodies the near-universal ideal of "lux ex tenebris" - light out of darkness. (Sarastro was likely based on the Viennese polymath, the scientist and scholar - and master mason - Ignaz von Born). Young initiates embark on a quest and undergo trials. This is at once a mythic romance and a fantastic adventure tale. Inspired by epics like the Odyssey, the Orpheus legend, and ancient Egyptian myths, The Magic Flute is an operatic example of the "timeless classic."

On a deeper level - and Mozart, contrary to the caricature presented in the play and film versions of Amadeus, was a deep thinker with wide philosophical interests - The Magic Flute is a profound meditation on finding meaning in life, answering its questions, and facing its challenges.

(The "Cabinet of Reflection," an image from the original libretto)

In his two male protagonists, the prince Tamino (tenor), and the bird-catcher, Papageno (baritone), Mozart gives us men who are both "stock" characters and real human beings. This is but one sign of his theatrical gift. Tamino accepts the challenge of rescuing the imprisoned princess, and along the way, proves his worth on repeated occasions through old-fashioned virtues like courage, common sense, patience, trust, and fidelity. Papageno is an "everyman" everyone of us can recognize: selfish, opportunistic, and cowardly. His spirit and wit, however, endear him to us, and thanks to that proverbial "second chance," he comes out of the trials with his feathers intact, if not unruffled.

So what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today? It has a lot to say, and it uses an astonishing variety of means with which to communicate. Like the great operas and plays in whose company it holds forth, it is a mirror within which an audience may see itself reflected. This device is used literally in Ingmar Bergman's wonderful film version from 1975.

If you want to come to the theatre to be entertained, Flute is a great opera to just sit back and enjoy. The scenes are short and varied, the dialogue (in English, no less) has its share of slapstick moments, and the music is nothing short of Mozart's best. It is a feast for the ears. If you come to the theatre to be moved, then Mozart will not fail to reach out and touch you, as if the distance between 1791 and 2013 mattered less than the short space between the Jefferson Center stage and the front row of Shaftman Performance Hall.