Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Colorful Cartoon “Magic Flute” at SF Opera—a pedestrian review

By John A. McMullen II
Friday June 22, 2012 - 01:29:00 PM
Nathan Gunn as Papageno
Cory Weaver
Nathan Gunn as Papageno

The Magic Flute at San Francisco Opera is a lovely cartoon of an opera which is, in this case, more about the extraordinary designer Jun Kaneko than the work of Mozart.  

In front of the War Memorial Opera House are two enormous ceramic sculptures by Jun facing one another, so you enter through these portals into his colorful imagination. 

During the overture a hypnotic abstract line drawing which is cued to the music fascinates the audience. 

The background sets are mainly Kaneko’s graphic projections of moving colors and shapes. The various bird and animal costumes are amazing and are reminiscent of some 1960’s fantasy caricatures. 

The staging of the opera is spare—mostly “park and bark”—seemingly to avoid competition with the projections. 

Most folks recall the movie “Amadeus,” in which there is a scene of an opera with a fellow in a chicken costume that sticks in the memory. That’s this opera. It was Mozart’s last opera. It ran for 100 performances, but he didn’t get to appreciate its success because he died 66 days after it opened. 

This production is sung in English, so it’s The Magic Flute rather than Die Zauberflote. Supertitles are still used since words can be lost in the arias.  

Perhaps it is the simplicity and familiarity of hearing it in our language that changes it from the mystique of German to the mundane. English is harder to sing—probably because of the hard “r’s”—but there is still some exotic difference. Compare hearing “So wird Ruh' im Tode sein!” vs. “I welcome the peace of death.” There are some languages that inspire awe by their nature--said this critic who grew up a Catholic when the mass was said in Latin.  

And the libretto is in rhymed couplets and quatrains in tetrameter, like this, “Who nears the holy temple door? / Young man, what are you looking for?” or “Loathsome villain, feel my scorn! / Pamina’s rescue I have sworn.” Thus the child-like simplicity is much more evident than in the German. 

The opera is a Singspiel, which includes spoken dialogue, but here all sung recitative is replaced completely by colloquial dialogue. Dialogue suited to a cartoon, like, “Get up and act like a man.” – “I’d rather lie here and act like a mouse.” 

It gives one the impression of having wandered into a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta with better singing; which is not necessarily a bad thing. 

At first glance, it seems to be a sexist, racist storyline.  

It’s complicated, but here’s a quick sketch:  

The Queen of the Night is the antagonist whose husband did not grant her the power upon his demise, but gave it to the sorcerer Sarastro. Sarastro has abducted the Queen’s daughter Pamina (sung by Soprano Heidi Stober) to keep her safe from her mother’s influence. Sarastro’s henchman Monostatos the Moor, unbeknownst to his master, keeps trying to have his way with Pamina. The Evil Queen has promised Pamina to the Moor if he can free her from Sarastro and bring her back to her court. Sarastro is keeping his friend’s daughter safe until her hero appears and completes the three tasks. He does this because, well, she’s a woman, and a woman can’t really make it in this world without a man to guide her. Or, implicitly, she might become like her mom. When we meet Tamino, our hero, he is being attacked by a two-headed, scary Big Red Chinese Snake—done masterfully with an outsized puppet. The Three Ladies slay the snake and view Tamino’s healthy unconscious form with lustful intentions. The bird-catcher Papageno(in a bird suit) shows up and becomes Tamino’s sidekick. Sarastro puts Tamino through his trials to win the fair maiden and enter the Brotherhood. Tamino was sung by Alek Shrader when I attended. 

Although sexism and racism were acceptable in 1791, that wasn’t the intention. It is far more complicated and a sort of “opera a clef”—a work of fiction that has a key to unlock the door in order to reveal the real people this opera was written about. 

The key is Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Dynasty who tried to suppress free thought and expression, and was virulently anti-Masonic. She was also the mother of Marie Antoinette, so this was on the eve of Revolution. Mozart was a Mason, and, together with his friend impresario/actor Emanuel Schickaneder who wrote the libretto, “laid it between the lines”— they made this opera an indictment of Maria Theresa who, here, is the Queen of the Night.  

The only two extraordinary voices in the cast are Albina Shagamuritova as the Queen and Kristin SIgmundsson as Sarastro. Shagamuritova’s coloratura—where she sings high in her register and bounces around sending off vocal fireworks—is the musical highlight of the opera. In "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" ("The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart") she hits an F6. (For those with limited musical knowledge like me, that’s 17 white keys above middle C on your piano.) She brought the audience to their feet during the curtain call. (When it comes to divas and ballerinas, do Russians just do it better?) Kristin Sigmundsson has a bass that is eerie in its depth, hitting an F on the low end. 

The acting is broad and sometimes slapstick, and Papageno (Nathan Gunn) and his new girlfriend Papagena (Nadine Sierra) give particularly joyful and animated performances. The “Three Ladies” (Melody Moore, Lauren McNeese, Renee Tatum) who rescue Tamino from the Snake are a pleasure to watch in their competitive byplay and to listen to in their overlapping trios 

It’s perfect for older children and for adults to get a firmer grasp of the slippery plot line that can seem abstruse in German. On a warm June evening, it makes for a grand night out. 

THE MAGIC FLUTE by W. A. Mozart 

San Francisco Opera 

The War Memorial Opera 301 Van Ness Avenue at Fulton, San Francisco. 

Conducted by Rory MacDonald 

Production designed by Jun Kaneko 

Plays: Thu 06/21 7:30pm, Sun 06/24 2pm*, Wed 06/27 7:30pm, Fri 06/29 8pm, Sun 07/18 2pm 

(*-Exploration Workshop: Inside the Magic Flute! @ Sun 06/24 11am & 12:30pm) 

John A. McMullen is a member of SFBATCC, ATCA, and SDC. EJ Dunne edits.