Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998
Let me state at the outset that I am not an opera expert. I cannot discuss a singer’s coloratura or vibrato; and I barely know an aria from a recitative. But I know what I like when I see it, and Berkshire Opera Company has staged one terrific production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (Die Zauberflote).
Whether the production sinks or swims is solely the responsibility of the BOC. The Magic Flute has been a hit ever since it opened in Vienna in 1791. Even if you are not a fan of classical music, it is impossible not to be swept away by Mozart’s beautiful score. This is an opera that has been called The Perfect Opera. It can be daunting to stage a work with a reputation like that because any deviation from perfection is going to be your fault.
Berkshire Opera doesn’t stumble once. The voices are magnificent: the cast is attractive, talented and appealing; the sets and costumes spectacular; the Camerata New York Orchestra plays flawlessly. Add Mozart to this mix and you have a surefire hit. Saturday’s opening night was sold out, and I imagine it will be hard to get tickets for the rest of the limited run, but I would urge you to try because it is worth it. You would have to drive a long way to a major city to see a production of this caliber, and then you would be seeing it in a cavernous urban opera house instead of the intimate Robert Boland Theatre at BCC.
Granted, this is still opera. It is sung in German and has one of the dumbest plots in the universe. BOC does offer electronically generated English super titles, but the screen is so high up on the proscenium arch that your eyes are constantly bouncing up and down, up and down, to keep an eye both on the actors and what they are saying. And I don’t trust those things 100%. Often a character will spew out a massive sentence in German and the super title will claim she said something like, “Ah, I see.”
As is the custom in opera, everything is big – the sets are big, the costumes are big, the voices are big, the hair-dos are big. Which is lots of fun. In her spectacular hoop skirted gowns, the beautiful Sari Gruber as the heroine Pamina is a dead-ringer for Vivienne Leigh in “Gone With The Wind.” A girl just doesn’t have much occasion to put on her hoop skirt anymore these days, and now that Princess Diana is gone it is fun to let the opera divas dress up for us. The Queen of the Night (Lorraine Ernest) has a magnificent pewter colored gown which sparkles like ice on tree branches on a moonlit winter’s night. And her three ladies in waiting (Jayne West, D’Anna Fortunato, and Elizabeth Turnbull) are equally gloriously dressed – each with a pile of 18th century hair that they balance perfectly on top of their heads whether fighting over the favors of the handsome Tamino (Matthew Chellis) or being swallowed up by the earth (i.e. dropped down a trap door) in their final battle.
And they sing so beautifully, so effortlessly. Every single performer – male and female – on that stage has been blessed with the voice of an angel. It puts us poor mortals who toil away in church choirs week after week to shame for ever daring to call ourselves singers.
The women may get the fancy dresses, but the men get much of the comedy. Christopheren Nomura has a field day as the comic Papageno, who is, by trade, a bird catcher. Traditionally, Papageno and his eventual mate, Papagena (Adele Paxton), are dressed like birds in wonderful plumage. While everyone else is dashing around being heroic and beautiful and singing up a storm, Papageno is our Everyman. He is afraid of the dragons and lions and of the dark and the storms. He gets hungry and thirsty and tired. Heck, he didn’t even want to come on this rescuing-the-Princess jaunt in the first place!
The wonderful sets have been borrowed from the Virginia Opera, where they were designed by Miguel Romero. Interestingly, Romero seems to have been strongly influenced by the art of Maurice Sendak in his stage design. Sendak in turn has been strongly influenced by opera and Mozart, especially by “The Magic Flute”, and has designed opera settings himself.
Did I mention the dragons and the lions? They fill the stage as the curtain goes up – their eyes shining red and gold, the dragons’ scales glossy green, the lion’s manes burnished gold. And yet they are gentle giants, easily tamed by the tones of the Magic Flute, and looking very much like Sendak’s Wild Things, who seem to have been reduced to advertising AT&T these days (ah, how the mighty have fallen!)
If you love opera, you will love this production. If you’ve never been to an opera before in your life, you will love this production. If you have been wanting to introduce your children or grandchildren to the joys of opera, this is the production to take them to.
The Magic Flute has performances August 22, 24, 27, 29, and 31, and September 3 and 5 at the Robert Boland Theatre in the Koussevitsky Arts Center on the campus of Berkshire Community College, West Street, Pittsfield. Call the Berkshire Opera Company 413-528-4420 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998