Yesterday afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the second of ten performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 The Magic Flute. This was a revival of the imaginative media-rich production conceived by Jun Kaneko and staged by Harry Silverstein, first performed during the Summer 2012 Season. The conductor was Lawrence Foster, making his SFO debut; and, given the essential role that music plays in any Mozart opera, Foster’s work at the podium is an excellent place to start.
His entry in the Artist Profiles section of the program book says nothing about his Mozart background; but that paragraph says little about any composers and even less about opera composers. Nevertheless, it was quickly evident that Foster had a firm command of both the solemn chords of Sarastro’s Temple and lively fugue that follows their Adagio introduction in the overture. He knew exactly how to balance strings, winds, and brass to give a crisp account of Mozart’s rhythmically charged counterpoint. The stepwise swoop of strings that ushers in the recapitulation of the second theme (sort of a variant of the Mannheim rocket) was a bit underplayed; but that was pretty much the only weak musical step of the entire evening.
Vocally, attention was drawn to the fact that illness prevented soprano Albina Shagimuratova from singing the role of the Queen of the Night. She was replaced on short notice by Kathryn Bowden, making her first appearance with SFO. Bowden was familiar with this role, as well as other demanding coloratura parts, such as Adele in Die Fledermaus and Cunégonde in Candide. There were a few signs of her unfamiliarity with the English text; but she delivered all of the requisite virtuoso passages with solid confidence, all reinforced with her character’s dogged sense of vengeance.
The English text was probably created by David Gockley, with additional material by Ruth and Thomas Martin, for the original performances of this production. On this particular occasion, however, Gockley placed himself up against some pretty stiff competition. It would be fair to may that many in the audience had already been dazzled by Stephen Sondheim’s deft command of rhymed couplets in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and it was quickly apparent that Gockley was nowhere near as facile as Sondheim on that turf. (For that matter the English translation by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman also set a pretty high bar.) Nevertheless, Gockley’s English was certainly serviceable and occasionally delightfully outrageous, as when Papageno’s “O weh!” gets translated as “Oy veh!” (How many of us think that those are the words he is actually singing when we listen to the opera in German?)
In addition to Bowden’s impressive substituting effort, the vocal work across the cast was consistently both impressive and entertaining. Tenor Paul Appleby was making his SFO debut as Tamino, capturing all of that character’s “downright, forthright, and upright” (thank you, Noël Coward) qualities without making them come off as overly silly. While this was not soprano Sarah Shafer’s first appearance (having been one of the “two women” in Marco Tutino’s new opera given its SFO premiere last June), this was the first chance to listen to her Mozart with SFO; and her command of Pamina was solid and consistently in character. Similarly bass Alfred Reiter brought all the necessary solemnity to wisdom to his portrayal of Sarastro, while tenor Greg Fedderly had a keen sense of Monastatos’ comic qualities.
Of particular interest, however, was the number of Adler Fellows contributing to the cast, beginning with the selection of baritone Efraín Solís to sing Papageno. Dramatically, he had all the necessary youthfully coarse qualities; but that coarseness never impeded his singing. His concluding duet with Papagena (Adler Fellow soprano Maria Valdes) was the perfect blend of outrageous physicality and a precise account of spritely singing. All of the Three Ladies serving the Queen of the Night were also Adler Fellows, soprano Jacqueline Piccolino, soprano Nian Wang, and mezzo Zanda Švēde. They colored Mozart’s rich harmonies and counterpoint with some of the ditsier qualities of Naiad, Dryad, and Echo often found in productions of Ariadne auf Naxos.
Indeed, between their characters and Papageno there was no shortage of low comedy. However, it is important to remember that The Magic Flute was created for what amounted to “suburban entertainment.” Librettist (and original producer) Emanuel Schikaneder knew that he would be playing to an audience more interested in a good time than any profound truths or heart-breaking tragedy. (Think “Comedy Tonight” to invoke, once again, the rhetorical skills of Sondheim.) In a large opera house The Magic Flute risks being a fish out of water. However, between the lively interpretations of both vocalists and conductor and Kaneko’s dazzling imagery, the SFO approach to Mozart does just fine in its rather enlarged venue.