The elegant Historic Playmakers Theater was completed in 1851 as a library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1925 the structure was renovated for use by the Carolina Playmakers. Recently spruced up, this venerable building accommodated UNC Opera's intimate production of Mozart's last completed and most popular opera, The Magic Flute. The performances (on April 15 and 16) were both sold out. This review addresses only the opening night performance on Friday. The cast on Saturday will be completely different, but I am sure, equally enticing.
The Artistic Director and Music/Stage Director was Terry Ellen Rhodes, who guided the wondrous, energetic, and enthusiastic performance. The student artists and the delighted audience fed off of each other's pleasure in the performance. The Production Manager/Lighting Designer was Matt Johnson with assistance from his crew, including Kelley Anderson, David Ash, Joncie Sarratt, Joanna Burke, Chris Nickell (translations), Bojue Hou, and Lauren Schultes. Costumes, which were traditional attire of Mozart's era, were by David Serxner, with assistance from Shoshanna Serxner, Mary Lou Shanklin, Paige Myers, and Douglas Haas.
The orchestra (including a celesta, playing the role of a glockenspiel, and timpani, playing the role of thunder) was under the direction of Brent Wissick. The brasses – including three trombones and trumpet – were a little heavy at times, drowning out the singing, especially of the chorus. (I played trombone in college and frequently heard it said: "Don't look at the trombone players. It only encourages them!") Seriously, the orchestra played well and added immensely to the charm of the production. Special mention is deserved by flutist Elly Walsh, who made Mozart's conception truly magical.
The role of Tamino was sung by Ryan Griffin, reprising the role he did one week ago in the Meredith College Opera Workshop production of The Magic Flute. Tonight he seemed more confident in the role of the prince, more virile and persuasive. The role of Pamina was beautifully played and sung by Caroline Mason. The Queen of the Night, a complex character and demanding role with amazing coloratura acrobatic vocal demands, was achieved effectively by Allison Bonner, who brought the house down with the famous aria, "Hell's revenge boils in my heart…." Sarastro, the wise king, was sung very well (including a couple of low Fs) by Sean Currin. His singing of the aria "In these sacred halls…" was especially rich and moving. Our favorite bird catcher, Papageno, was charmingly done by Forrest Flemming. His lovely Papagena (lovely, that is, after shedding her old hag disguise) was delightfully played by Kristin Barney. Who can sit through this opera without "Pa-, pa-, pa-, pa-" making them want to skip all the way home? Ah, Mozart! How much poorer life would be without you.
The Queen's three Ladies, sung by Hannah DeBlock, Ping Fu, and Joncie Sarratt, and the three Spirits, sung by Emily Siar, Bizzy Maness and Jessica Hiltabidle, were all musically solid, with the right balance of dramatic and comedic interpretation. In addition they project, with other characters, some of the extraordinary ensemble passages Mozart penned. The devious Monostratos was portrayed and sung effectively by Chris Nickell. The Speaker was Risden McElroy, and the two Men in Armor were Cornelius J. David and Daniel Silva. The chorus has some very nice moments in this opera and did a good job though, as mentioned above, the singers were a bit overpowered by the brass, which in most instances doubles the chorus notes.
Opera is the grandest of all performance arts. It is also the most demanding, requiring staging, costuming, sets, props, lighting, orchestra, singers, dancers, and more. It is absolutely astonishing to me to think of these young singers memorizing the music and the words in a language mostly foreign to them. How do you count the work – hours, weeks, months? What a feat of accomplishment it is! Our deepest gratitude to all those on stage and behind the scenes who made an evening such as this available to those of us who were so moved, delighted, and enriched by it.
The final word of appreciation must be for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In 1791, he was in debt, often depressed, and physically sick. Yet in his music, he lives on, inspiring us, helping us to know ourselves better, inviting us to laugh and live nobly. He serenades us with charm and beauty and comforts us with his dream to make "the Earth a heavenly kingdom, and mortals like the gods." We take with us the magic flute (music) to guide and protect us through all life's trials and challenges.
Note: Hungry for more Flutes? There will be three performances in Winston-Salem in June. For details, click here.