My first thought at the conclusion of an unusually satisfying production of Mozart's The Magic Flute in Aycock Auditorium on the UNC-Greensboro campus on April 11 was seriously to consider coming back Sunday afternoon to hear the same cast. It was that good. Contrasted with the fine, opulent Opera Company of North Carolina production, with its Maurice Sendak sets and imported singers, of four seasons ago, Producer and Stage Director David Holley made a virtue of necessity, focusing of the opera's most basic elements, the juxtaposition of polar opposites. Drawing heavily on black and white, Set Designer R. Keith Pugh made striking use of backdrops showing a giant black and white chess board. The forces of the Queen of the Night were represented by black chess pieces and effective jet-black costumes while white chess pieces and pure white robes were worn by Sarastro's forces. Mozart's Everyman, Papageno, was outfitted in bright yellow Lederhosen and green-tipped feathers. His head was adorned with a multicolored beanie with a bright green propeller on top. His ladylove, Papagena, after loosing her "old hag's" rags, was clad in bright pinks with feathers. Kudos to Costume Designer Deborah Bell. Dancers in apt costumes and really wonderful masks, by Bruce Mars, were delightful in their several scenes.
Mozart could have had few complaints about the tight ensemble playing of the members of the UNCG Opera Orchestra that filled the pit. The horns were really first rate in their exposed and critical scenes. Special praise ought to go to the sensitive playing of Heather Hamilton, who handled the celesta (Papageno's silver bells) and was earth shaking on the bass drum used for very effective thunder and to increase tension in some of the dry speaking scenes. All sections of the orchestra had their chance to shine and did so, under the stylish direction of conductor Richard Cox, as effective as a late Mozartean as he was last fall as a late Verdian.
The curtain rose to reveal three giant black chess pieces, a Queen, a Bishop and a Knight. About them swirled clouds of dry ice-perhaps smoke from the dragon? The Prince, sung by tenor Jason Karn, wearing a black tai-kwon do-like robe, entered calling for help as the eye of the horse-headed knight piece glowed red and clouds of smoke steamed from its nostrils. Karn's diction was excellent throughout and he had a well-above-average, solid tenor voice that showed little sign of strain. Continuing the black vs. white theme, as each scene with the Prince opened, more and more sections of his costume became white until, during the last scene, only white attire remained. As he fainted, the three black clad Ladies, sung by Hilary Ann Webb, Katie Quinn, and Meghann L. Vaughn, made their melodious appearance. Their stage blocking was effective; they were always on the move as each in turn yearned to be alone with the Prince. Webb's ringing voice stood out from their excellent blend.
The stormy arrival of the Queen of the Night was handled brilliantly. Amid thunderous percussion and flashing lightning effects, a curtain in the queen's pawn dropped to reveal the star-spangled Queen, spotlit behind a scrim within it. Her costume, a jet-black gown with intersecting lines of jewels, befitted her terrible majesty. Sung with knife-edge exactitude by Jennifer Odom, I can't imagine it better done in English. Here she was all motherly concern while in Act II she was all afire seeking revenge against Sarastro. Avoiding the Russian roulette of pubescent boychoir members, the Three Spirits were effectively sung by Emily R. Boyce, Laura Anne Rummage and Meredith Covington. Their acting was telling, highlighting the action in the later scenes with the despairing Papageno and Pamina.
The scene in Sarastro's realm had giant white chess pieces before a black and white chessboard curtain, and Pamina's "fainting couch" had zebra stripes. Pamina was sung dazzlingly by Abigail Southard, who was outstanding in last year's production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. Her full and well-supported soprano voice was under marvelous control and her diction was flawless. Her encounter with her coloratura Mother in Act II was breathtaking. One rarely hears such vocal excellence in multiple singers in an opera.
Age will only enrich the quality of bass-baritone Sidney Outlaw, whose irrepressible comic flair had impressed us in last season's Offenbach. Here he brought great dignity to the central role of Sarastro. At times, in the spoken parts of this "Singspiel," his tone reminded me of that great mid-20th-century singer, William Warfield. Time will add resonance to his low notes, which are already present.
Soprano Erin Cates revealed a pleasing soprano voice coupled with vivacious characterization in the role of Papagena. Her good-humored Old Hag was as good as any. Once revealed, she was as energetic as her effervescent birdman. W.C. Fields was right about animals and children. Near the end of the avian love duet, they were joined by a young boy and young girl dressed exactly as they, and the scene was totally stolen when, as they exited, a very young boy toddler ran hesitatingly after them.
Tenor Todd DeBra did about all one could with the paper villain, Monostatos. He performed several handstands in the course of the production.
All the other minor roles were well performed, as were the important choral parts. The choristers were prepared by Richard Waters, who is in his first year of the DMA program in choral conducting at UNCG as well as Director of Music at Union Ridge United Church of Christ in Burlington.
All praise to Director Holley's smooth translation, which is much superior to the drab one more often heard. Thursday's cast appears again Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. Anyone who loves this opera ought to catch one of these performances.
Incidentally, that aforementioned production of Orpheus in the Underworld won a first place award in the National Opera Association's competition. This was the second year in a row that a UNCG opera has received national recognition and the School of Music's seventh award since 1993. The Offenbach placed first in category three of the 2001 competition. The categories are based on production budgets. The judges make their decisions using videotapes. According to a press release, the other first place wins were Dialogues of the Carmelites in 1997, Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1996 and Don Giovanni in 1994.