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A Spellbinding 'Magic Flute' at Seattle Opera

Andrew Stenson as Tamino, photo by Jacob Lucas

It’s hard to say what to admire most and first about Seattle Opera’s current production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which made its debut in 2011 and is on stage now in a welcome return. Zandra Rhodes’ colorful, imaginative costumes light up the stage, from heroine Pamina’s silvery-sky blue gossamer gown to bird-man Papageno’s outrageous feather bustle, the Egyptian-themed saffron outfits for Sarastro and his temple members and jackal heads for the slaves. Robert Dahlstrom and Robert Schaub created a set made of triangles, no furniture necessary, from small and larger pyramids to a triangular arch of fluctuating colors—made of confined smoke, maybe?—outlining the stage, again with a nod toward ancient Egypt. Duane Schuler’s lighting is warm throughout, except for the starry sky behind the Queen of the Night. And kudos to all who collaborated to create the fabulous menagerie of animals, a sheer delight to see.

All this adds to the great group of singing actors gathered together by Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang, who has a worldwide knowledge of singers to draw on. For this he has picked not only international stars, like the extraordinary German high soprano Christina Poulitsi, who nailed the Queen of the Night’s stratospheric arias in full, easy voice, but also several recent graduates of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists’ program, like the fine tenor Andrew Stenson as Tamino, who opened the run on Saturday night and who acts as well as he sings. Of particular note are the six youngsters (divided between the opera's two alternating casts), five of them from the Seattle Opera’s Youth Chorus, who sang the Three Spirits confidently, on pitch and well-balanced vocally.

Lang has an unerring ear for matching the right voices to the opera, and makes sure all voices in a production are of equal merit for what they are singing. On Saturday night, Lauren Snouffer’s lovely soprano was perfect for the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, and John Moore, a buffoon with excellent timing as Papageno, colored his voice to fit. In The Magic Flute Mozart reaches for the outer limits of the human voice, the heights and the depths, and Croatian Ante Jerkunica’s bass had the right rumble for temple boss Sarastro. The Queen’s Three Ladies, the slave Monostatos, First and Second Priests and First and Second Armored Men were also all excellently acted and sung, aided by consummate staging from Chris Alexander who also staged the 2011 production. 

Opera dramaturg Jonathan Dean wrote the supertitles with an ear to current language and a sly reference or two to the current political situation (e.g. “fake news”) which brought audience laughter. They also drew attention to some of the more troubling elements in Mozart’s and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder’s plot. The Queen of the Night is an ambitious, manipulative woman, ready to ditch her daughter if she can’t use her. But Sarastro, portrayed as the opposite, the wise, good man who rules his temple with an iron hand, brings with him an uncomfortable feel of cultism as well as a dismissive view of women, and a nasty affinity for slavery as well as vindictive punishment—the 77 lashes on the feet for the transgressing Monostatos. In this production, Tamino and Pamina end up rejecting both. British conductor Julia Jones makes her debut here before heading to the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, to conduct another Magic Flute. Under her sure hand the orchestra gave us clean, fresh, lively Mozart with nuance and support for the singers. 

The Magic Flute runs through May 21. 

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