The Magic Flute
Clowes Memorial Hall
Sept. 28 and 30
It was called a vaudeville, produced for Viennese commoners in a theater not catering to the aristocracy. It was a setting of verses by theater impresario Emanuel Schikaneder. It was written in German, the common language of Austria. It had fairy-tale magic, mayhem, tuneful ditties and all sorts of stage effects calculated to entertain the public of the 1790s.
Into this mix of melody, hijinks, solemn vows, ritual trials and allegoric wish fulfillment, Mozart — in his final year of the 35 allotted to him, and desiring to inculcate elements of his Freemasonry creed — poured the most sublime music ever to grace an opera stage and an opera pit. And last Friday, Indianapolis Opera opened its season with the two-act Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), to a not-quite-filled Clowes Hall — IO’s fourth production of this sui generis stage work.
Continuing with its past practice, IO cast Magic Flute in English for this “singspiel” (set pieces interspersed with much spoken dialogue) as a practical alternative to having the performers learn lots of spoken German (for critics to pick on their “diction”). The translation of Schikaneder’s text was skillfully done by Andrew Porter (the astute longtime music critic for The New Yorker magazine). In fact, almost everything about this production showed payoff skill, not the least of which was the singing.
A cast of practically all IO debut singers (exceptions are noted) raised the average vocal ability above the company’s recent norm, starting with tenor Daniel Holmes as Prince Tamino. As he opens Act 1, being chased by a most ungainly serpent (several people moving under a plastic serpent outfit with a ludicrously wide open mouth), his concern for his life is conveyed in a smooth, well projected, well controlled, even-centered delivery. He continues this caliber in a later ensuing aria, following the Three Ladies’ showing him a portrait of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night.
Then the Three Ladies, attendants to the Queen, enter and slay the oversized snake, making over their “charming,” unconscious prince by showing some ardor. Sung by sopranos Jennie Searles (who sang in last year’s IO Carmen), Emily Albrink and Jennifer Feinstein, their collectively wide vibratos compromise the ensemble blend to some extent, but their introductory music easily fits the sublime category. Following which bird-catcher Papageno enters, sung by baritone Andrew Wilkowske and showing us another well controlled voice within a lively persona. He sings his opening ditty with forceful, comic energy.
Any Queen of the Night role is the ultimate challenge for a coloratura voice, and Julia Kogan does well in her introductory recitative and aria, hitting that high F squarely on target even though the D below it was a little off. She has a greater challenge in Act 2 with her famous “All Hell’s Vengeance” where she skips up to that F several times. Kogan handled those high registers about as well as many famous divas.
At the opposite end we had bass/baritone Stefan Szkafarowsky singing Sarastro — head of the priests — and dipping to a low F several times, four full octaves below the Queen’s high one. This range is the widest of any standard-repertoire opera. His voice sounding raspy at this extreme, Szkafarowsky gave us a smoother delivery in the baritone registers of his profound Act 2 aria “O Isis and Osiris,” as well as in his later “Within These Sacred Halls.”
The difficulty in finding adequate boy sopranos no doubt drove IO to using women for the Three Spirits, attendants to Sarastro (his people should have been all male, in that setting). As a trio ensemble, Kelly Najacht, Danielle Steele and Jennifer Nie (appearing in IO’s The Crucible in 2005) sang “whiter” and thus with a desired lower opulence than the Three Ladies.
The shining star in this ensemble was soprano Marnie Breckenridge (improving on her title role in IO’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 2005), singing Pamina. Her forceful delivery this time was not compromised by excessive wobbliness, her vocal control setting the example for her fellow cast members, especially in her poignant second-act aria, “Ah, I Feel it, it has Vanished.”
Rachel E. Copeland’s Papagena, appearing at the end, as Papageno’s sought-for love, joined with Wilkowske in their famous “Papa-papa-papa” patter duet — again well done.
Stage director John Davies made an appropriate use of children costumed in black moving sets in subdued light during scene changes. The youngsters also appeared as hastily begotten offspring of Papageno and Papagena as they joined the other principals at the end. IO artistic director James Caraher conducted the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra with good verve throughout —the tinkling bells adding to the special luster of this special work.