It was too bad this first of three successive performances of Die Zauberflöte, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, had so small an audience. But who would have expected this staging, the product of an intensive workshop featuring singers ranging from a few high schoolers through some in their 30s, and using sparse sets, would have been so effective? Mix enthusiastic singers, imaginative stage directions, a very small chamber orchestra, some really creative use of lighting, and viola!
The American Singers' Opera Project Inc. of North Carolina was founded in New York City in 1997, moved to Salem College in North Carolina in 2007, and has been located on the Wake Forest University campus since 2010. The Artistic Director is Barbara DeMiao Caprilli, the Music Director and Conductor is Scott Crowne, the Stage Director is Michael Kamtman, and the Technical Director, whom I assume was responsible for lighting, etc., is Jay Lawson. The very effective pit orchestra consisted of violinists Corine Brouwer and Beth Metheny, violist Noah Hock, cellist Evan Richey, double bassist Aaron Craven, and flutist Lissie Shanahan. Orchestra texture and those "magic bells" were conjured up by Susan Morton at the upright piano. Conductor Crowne chose apt tempos and kept close co-ordination between the musicians and the singers.
This opening night performance had an unusual benefit and challenge for the reviewer. Since five roles lacked a third singer, one for each night, those roles were doubled and each shared by taking the role in either Act I or Act II. Arias were sung in German while the brief spoken texts were done in English. All the singers delivered their parts with very good diction in both languages and projected well over the small orchestra. Little character touches were evidence of some very thoughtful stage direction.
I will review the cast in order of their appearance except for the five roles for which I will cover both the Act I and Act II singers together. Tenor Griffin LaVictoire was dramatically effective as the Prince Tamino. His voice initially seemed a little dry but it warmed up nicely as the opera progressed.
The first doubling of roles is that of First Lady with soprano Marisa Lenz very effective in Act I while soprano Holly Pritchard in Act II had fewer solo spots to shine. The most impressive thing was the combination of close ensemble and strong individuality of the roles of the Three Ladies. Soprano Amanda Peavyhouse sang Second Lady and mezzo-soprano Madison Drace sang Third Lady in both acts. This was most impressive since this is not always the case in fully professional performances.
It was interesting to see two different takes on the role of the beloved bird-catcher Papageno. Tenor Zachary DeVault had a marginally dryer timbre in the role in Act I but was effective in the comedy. Tenor Kelly DeLameter sang with a warmer tone in Act II and portrayed the character with a broader, more flamboyant approach. In priestly garb, Devault got to hassle DeLameter in Act II as the First Priest.
The challenging role of the Queen of the Night was also taken by two sopranos. Hillary Trumpler had all the high notes in line in Act I while Elizabeth Overman brought off her coloratura runs equally well in Act II. It was pretty much a draw, with no crash landings!
Few opera companies can risk young boys as the Three Spirits and opt, as here, for three sopranos. I was initially confused because they first made their appearance as the slaves who work with the corrupt Monostatos. The role of the First Spirit was doubled with Karen Van horn taking it in Act I while Stacee Lyles took her place in Act II. Nikki Nudelman sang the Second Spirit while Mikaya Doman was the Third Spirit. They formed a very effective ensemble in both acts with less solo opportunities for the First Spirit compared to the Three Ladies. Again some imaginative stage business individualized the three more than is often the case.
Too often efforts to make the role of the Monostatos villainous lead to vocal distortion or excessive harshness. This staging allowed some of the tonal warmth of tenor Scott Pullen to shine through.
Soprano Sangeetha Ekambaram lacked nothing in vocal power or beauty of line in the role of Pamina. Her voice was beautifully supported across its range and she conveyed the emotional range superbly. Bright-voiced soprano Alicia Reid, as Papagena, was a fine foil to Papageno.
Both singers in the role of Sarastro brought plenty of gravitas to the roles of Sarastro, and both took priestly roles in the other's staring acts. Bass Miquel Ochoa had the most evenly polished voice as Sarastro in Act I. He first appeared singing the Speaker's lines before making Sarastro's grand entrance. In Act II, he was the second Priest, who effectively guided Tamino through his trials. Bass Troy Small was impressive as Sarastro in Act II, possessing plenty of presence and only lacking full support for his lowest range. Both singers' low ranges ought to firm up as they get older.
The minimal set consisted of screens, large potted plants, benches and chairs, and architectural columns. Large color projections, a desert oasis, various ancient Egyptian temples, and a dark forest created atmosphere. But most impressive were the flashing lights, rolling thunder, and projected strokes of lightning. It made a perfect entrance for the star-dazzled Queen!
Repeat performances are tonight (6/13) and tomorrow (6/14) at 7:00 p.m. in Brendle Recital Hall. For details, see the sidebar.