Superb singing and acting make the current Piedmont Opera production of The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's last opera, a "must see" event at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. A large audience of all ages filled the hall – this is a great opera to include the children, being full of magic, comic situations, flashy staging, and all sung in English! Repeat performances are Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. (followed by a children's party to meet the cast) and Tuesday night, March 17th at 7:30 p.m.
Based on principles of the Enlightenment, The Magic Flute is an allegory about overcoming arrogance and tradition by practicing determination and obedience and by the successful completion of assigned tasks and tests. But rather than belabor the philosophical underpinnings as have some productions, guest Stage Director Andrew Nienaber has wisely chosen the light-hearted, comedic interpretation when dealing with the all-too-human characters and their human shortcomings. And except for the solemn Masonic moments, with their rituals and symbols, Mozart's music is delightfully animated and passionate – indeed, some of the most beautiful and most beloved music he composed in the short but prolific life, which was to end three months after the premiere of The Magic Flute in 1791. Mozart wrote this opera, which he called a Singspiel, a "sung play," in German, with spoken dialogues where one might have expected sung recitatives. As mentioned earlier, in this production all is in English, mostly rimed couplets with the sung text projected on a screen high above the stage.
Sets, lent to the Piedmont Opera by the Sarasota Opera, were inspired by the 1815 production by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, as well as by his painting of Mont Blanc. Modern lighting techniques allow superimposed sets to change instantly, to great dramatic effect. An unbelievable dragon, perhaps an allegory for the primal chaos whence all begins, is slain by three ladies sent by the Queen of the Night, much to the hilarity of the audience, while the hero of the opera, Tamino, lies exhausted three yards away. He is discovered by Papageno, a bird-catcher, possessed of a mercurial mind, quick to take advantage, but full of indecision and prone to err. This role, played in the original 1791 premiere by the author of the libretto himself, Emanuel Schikaneder, is the most developed of all the characters in the opera, giving it much charm and humor. Ted Federle sang, acted, and spoke this captivating role with verve, humor, and genuine human emotion. The high point of his performance came midway through the second act (of two) when he discovers his soul mate, convincingly played with great charm by Megan Cleaveland, who transfigures in a twinkling from an old lady into a delightfully avian Papagena with a lovely soprano voice.
Our earnest and handsome hero, Tamino, is played and sung with disciplined warmth and a rich tenor voice by Dominic Armstrong. The Three Ladies who save him from the dragon, Kristen Schwecke and Amanda Moody, sopranos, and Laura Conyers, mezzo-soprano, have exquisitely matched voices, perfectly adapted to the earthly creatures they are. By contrast, the Three Spirits – Alicia Reid, Samantha Johnson, and Lindsay Mecher – who guide and advise our hero, Tamino, and his sidekick, Papageno, through their trials are also perfectly matched with each other and with the character of the more spiritual and light-hearted music Mozart assigns them.
Pamina, sung by Annamarie Zmolek, soprano, is the heroine who eventually passes the trials of fire and water with Tamino, winning his love. From her first entrance she captured my heart with the purity and beauty of her voice and the ease and accuracy with which she sang her first act duet on the powers of love with Papageno. It was simply splendid. Her second act aria ("Ach, ich fühls, es ist…") was the musical highlight of my evening. This is a voice to keep track of!
Perhaps the most famous aria from The Magic Flute is the second act aria of the Queen of the Night, with its famous high staccato arpeggios for coloratura soprano. Brittany Robinson stopped the show with her spectacular singing and believable acting in the aria, wherein she tries to persuade her daughter, the beautiful Pamina, to kill Sarastro, the High Priest of the order in which Tamino, her love, is trying to prove himself worthy of acceptance. She sings, she acts, and she is dressed beautifully and made up regally!
The enigmatic high priest of the order, Sarastro, sung by basso profundo Ashraf Sewailam, has two splendid arias which show the depth of his voice as he extols the depths of brotherly love and forgiveness. Simon Petersson has a voice far too lyrical and charming to make of him a lecherous guard (Monostatos), hoping to take advantage of the sequestered Pamina, but he nonetheless pulled it off, only to be banished with the Queen of the Night and her Three Ladies in a lightning blast cleverly engineered by Lighting Designer Norman Coates. Two Men in Armor, Craig Collins and Patrick Scully, intoned in glorious octaves the rules of the Temple while the orchestra played in strict counterpoint, a musical allegory of the rule of the laws of Nature.
Maestro James Allbritten successfully directed the entire musical production, not the least important component of which is the excellent Winston-Salem Symphony, which played with stunning cleanliness and accuracy the devilishly difficult overture. One only wished for more woodwind presence, especially clarinets and bassoons. Playing magically herself, the flute solos of principal flutist Kathryn Levy were numerous and of a pure and fluid beauty. The Piedmont Opera Chorus of Priests and Priestesses was powerful and solemn.
This is a performance not to be missed – and an excellent introduction to the magical realm of opera. As noted, repeat performances are Sunday afternoon, March 15th, at 2 p.m., and Tuesday night, March 17th, at 7:30 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.