The Magic Flute at the Cincinnati Opera

Magic FluteIf you expect reverence for the score written by this great composer at the height of his powers, you will find the  Cincinnati Opera’s production of the Magic Flute galling.  Not only do they make massive cuts, but they add interludes, excerpts from totally unrelated Mozart piano works.  However, I don’t think Mozart would have been bothered by this cavalier attitude.  He was, after all, just creating a bit of entertainment.  And much of this production was delightful.

The set consisted of a giant wall that served as a projection screen for the animation. The singers appeared on the floor in front of it, or in doors cut cut out of the middle or high up near the top.  Sometimes, the singer provided merely the face of the animated character: the Queen of the Night was a giant spider whose legs filled the entire screen.  Other times, the characters interacted with what was happening in the animation.

dragonThe approach was particularly effective in the opening scene: Tamino is chased by a dragon;  he is miraculously saved by a trio of magical creatures, who then turn out to be three silly girls, admiring the handsome young Tamino passed out from his encounter with the dragon. Obviously, this is a good plot for a cartoon. Several times, the music was covered by the laughter of the audience reacting to the sight gags.

The group that designed the production calls itself 1927, named for the year of the first talkie.  They create a unique combination of animation, live action and music in a style that harkens back to the movies of the 1920s.  The costumes and the characterizations were often straight out of the silent pictures.  Papageno is modeled on Buster Keaton, the evil Monostatos, on Nosferatu, the vampire.

The most direct reference to the silent cinema came in the interludes, played on a tinny, slightly de-tuned, piano forte.  It felt very much like an old  silent movie, where the piano player is improvising an accompaniment, setting the mood for whatever was happening in the movie.  They even used 1920s style titles to catch you up on the action.  In this case, the pianist was playing excerpts from Mozart’s D minor Fantasy.  The quick changes of mood in the piece were timed perfectly with the film, so that it seemed that the pianist was reacting to the screen, not the other way around.   Once I got over the fact that it was not The Magic Flute, I enjoyed it.  It felt intimate, quaint, and quite funny.

In the second act, for the most part, they let the music carry the moment.  By this time, their tricks were no longer so fresh and there was much less laughter from the audience.  However, there is a scene, the Trial by Fire and Water, where Mozart has written background music for what was clearly some spectacular stage trick in the original production.  Here, I was expecting our animators to pull out all the stops.  However, I thought this result was rather lame.  Perhaps I was simply no longer enthralled by the spectacle.

There was another problem with all of their cuts.  It is difficult to imagine that you could make the plot of the Magic Flute any more incoherent, but these guys managed it.  One of my favorite pieces is the duet of Papageno and his love, Papagena, near the end of the  opera, called “Pa-pa-pa” after the opening line (I like very simple ideas).  However, in this performance, I realized that part of the beauty and humor of the moment lies in how it has been set up.  Poor Papagena had been almost entirely cut out of the previous action, and her appearance at the end felt tacked on, not emotionally connected to the rest of the drama. Moreover, the production didn’t make nearly as effective use of the Papageno character, usually the source of the comedy, as you would expect; it is as if their imagination was not sparked when the jokes were handed to them by the libretto.

Did I mention that there was music in this opera?  The problem with the whole approach is that the show tended become a movie with live accompaniment.  Occasionally, my wife found it so distracting, she closed her eyes so she could listen better,

Chistopher AllenThe evening began with an overture, done straight, no visuals except the that you could watch the conductor and the musicians.  I have heard this work many times; never have I heard it done better.  So many conductors take “Allegro” as an opportunity to see how fast his players can go; the result is impressive, exciting, but rushed.  This performance was energetic and  lively, but the details were given enough room to sparkle. The orchestra, under the direction of Christopher Allen, played with the intensity that I have come to expect from this world class ensemble.  Here was Mozart the way it should be played. I look forward to hearing Christopher Allen lead them again.

The singing that followed was up to the standard that had set in the overture.  With all that was going on on stage, it was quite a while before I realized how good the tenor, Aaron Blake, was in the role of Tamino.  He has a nice clear voice, and sings with expression.  Similarly, Kim-Lillian Strebel, in the role of Pamina, sang beautifully.

Queen of Night SpiderThe Magic Flute features two roles with extreme ranges; the Queen of the Night is impossibly high, while Sarastro is impossibly low.  Both are written to convey super human mastery: the Queen of the Night’s sinister magic, and Sarastro’s profound understanding of unfathomable mysteries.  Tom McNichols covered the low part with enough power to be heard, which is impressive, but the sound was more annoying than profound.  On the other hand, Jeni Houser not only managed, she blew me away.  Her high notes sounded like a baroque trumpet (except they are higher).  It was acrobatic, powerful, and beautiful.

Among the rest of the cast, the three spirits stood out.  This trio is written for young boys, that is relatively light voices with excellent musicianship and enough power to be heard in an opera house.   Ashley Fabian, Abigail Hoyt, and Paulina Villarreal are not exactly boys, but their voices, in the context of the outsized world of opera, were  perfect for the part. Their singing was delightful. I particularly enjoyed the aria where they interact with the heroine Pamina.  The singing was expressive, and the contrast in the quality of the trio with the soloist worked perfectly.

In sum, the plot was even more of a mess than usual.  The staging was inventive and delightful, and certainly worth seeing. And the music was just great, Mozart at his finest.

Come see it you can


Silent Night at the Cincinnati Opera


I heard the music of Kevin Puts for the first time in May at a concert of the Vocal Arts Ensemble. I liked what I heard, and was looking forward to more as the Cincinnati Opera presented his opera Silent Night. I was not disappointed.

The story is based on the amazing impromptu Christmas truce that occurred along the western front in 1914. The opera follows three groups of soldiers,  German, Scottish, and French. After a brief instrumental introduction, characters from each of the three groups are introduced, as they learn about the war. The main focus among the Germans is an opera star, who is onstage performing a duet that gets interrupted by an announcement from the Kaiser. A pair of brothers in Scotland hear about the war, and one dreams of glory. A young French couple is expecting their first child, and the expectant mother complains that her husband is going away at such an important time.

Couple   Being opera, there has to be a love story. The soprano singing in the duet manages to re-unite with her lover, bringing the German away from the front to sing with her in a concert for the prince, and then returning with him to the front. Musically, this is a wonderful device. The shallowness of the rich nobility is depicted by the chamber ensemble accompanying an imitation of music from the early nineteenth century, contrasting starkly with the dark reality from the front.  At the front, after the truce has taken hold, the soprano has a lovely, unaccompanied aria “Dona Nobis Pacem” just at the end of the first act. Erin Wall‘s lush soprano was a beautiful contrast to all of the male voices, though the aria gets a little showy toward the end for my taste. Later, the socialist ideology implicit all along takes hold of the couple: after a short, somewhat implausible speech about the greedy capitalists hiding behind a veneer of patriotism, they walk to the other side to surrender, escaping the fate that awaits many of those remaining. All in all, not very believable, but well within the operatic tradition.

Silent-Night-Cease-Fire-cred.-Opera-Philadelphia-Kelly-Massa The dramatic high point of the opera is the moment where peace breaks through. It begins with a solo bagpipe, imperfectly played, accompanying a Scottish baritone, safely in their bunker. Then, the German opera singer, stands up and sings a carol, while the French complain about both. The music and the libretto combine to give a sense of the danger as the German emerges from the safety of the trench, and though I knew how it was going to turn out, I was fully engaged at that moment.

ac_onstage_silent night _credit- philip groshong-cincinnati opera.widea   In the second act, the truce continues. There is a delightful trio among the three lieutenants, mostly in English, but with the German translating for the Frenchman whose English is weak. I generally find collections of so many male operatic voices thick and dull, but not this time. The setting felt quite natural, and the translation gave the composer a chance to imitate the previous line, sometimes sequentially, sometimes overlapping, all  quite inventive. Carrying it off as naturally as these performers did required both musicianship and acting ability; this was typical of the excellence displayed by the cast of soloists throughout the opera.

Kevin Puts’s Kevin Puts  musical style works with operatic voices. Sometimes, there is a sustained triad with an angular melodic line, though the harmony is usually much more complex. Except in the prologue, I seldom had trouble hearing the soloists over the orchestra, despite frequent thickness in the harmony. Under the able direction of David Charles Abell, the scoring worked.

“Better than the Carmen”, which is what my partner said after leaving Music Hall, would normally be impossibly high praise for a new opera; however, she was comparing it to a rather lame performance that we had seen to begin this summer season. In truth, she found some parts of this opera rather long. Silent Night is never going to be as beloved as Carmen, with its the sexy heroine, overwhelming passion, and abundance of catchy tunes,. However, I have no reservations about the Pulitzer Prize for classical music being granted to such a fine opera.  I am pleased to live in a city where such excellent new works are performed.