THE MAGIC FLUTE at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis

St. Louis’ marvelous Opera Theater continues its festival season with perhaps the most popular opera in the world – Mozart’s Glorious The magic flute! It is the story of valiant effort that led to enlightenment and optimism after terrible hardship. It’s only fitting, as OTSL returns to its beautiful inner home after its heroic struggles over the past two “plague years”.

This opera is a fantasy on Freemasonry, a movement that developed under the impulse of the Enlightenment. Freemasonry was, essentially, a humanistic rejection of ancient hierarchical authority and a commitment to human perfection through individual betterment. There was a basic optimism at its core.

Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikeneder, were Freemasons.

The story is half allegorical fairy tale, half enigma and half kaleidoscope of symbols. (And that’s not all that doesn’t count in this big puzzle.) We uninitiated people find it hard to parse all the symbols in this opera, but musically it’s a scrumptious treat!

We are in Egypt. We are in the midst of a mystical and metaphysical struggle between the Powers of Darkness (embodied by the Queen of the Night) and the Powers of Light, led by Sarastro, the powerful Grand Master of his temple of Freemasonry.

Trapped in this battle, the young prince Tamino and the lovely Pamina, daughter of the queen of the night. Now Pamina has been kidnapped by Sarastro, and her mother enlists Tamino to save her. Needless to say, from the moment Tamino sees Pamina’s portrait, he falls madly in love with her.

As usual with OTSL, the voices of this cast are sublime. The central role, Tamino, is played by Joshua Blue, whose soft and clear tenor is a joy. He appeared in smaller roles in OTSL productions of La Rondine, The Trial, and Gianni Schicchi. His talents well deserve this more demanding role.

Erica Petrocelli sings Pamina. At first, I found her voice a little too dramatic, a little too dark for this innocent ingenue, but she won me over quickly. Her voice can richly convey all the emotions, while masterfully integrating all that coloratura stuff and making it sound easy and natural. She’s amazing – the most outstanding voice of the evening!

Jeni Houser, as Queen of the Night, tackles the most difficult coloratura aria in all of the opera – the “Vengeance Aria”, and she sings it with dazzling color. With laser-like precision, it delivers a sparkling firework of shimmering notes.

Sarastro, the “High Priest of the Sun”, is sung with authority by bass Adam Lau (last seen here in Richard Lion’s Heart.)

Three magical ladies serving the Queen of the Night are sung by Meghan Kasanders, Meridian Prall and Stephanie Sanchez. Their beautiful voices are perfectly matched.

Ah! And then there’s Papageno, the bird catcher! He is the comic center of the room! He’s a liar and a coward, but he becomes Pamino’s sidekick. He is alone and longs for a lover. Dressed in a rustic patchwork, Jonathan McCullough makes Papageno a total delight. He is such a refreshing change from all the high moral pontifications of priests and queens. McCullough’s Splendid Comedy Gifts almost distract us from his very beautiful baritone gifts.

Angel Riley (as the bright, teasing Papagena) fulfills Papageno’s dream.

Conductor Rory Macdonald leads his orchestra in true beauty in support of these beautiful voices.

So musically that magic flute is a wonderful gift. But I have issues with some design elements and director Omer Ben Seadia’s choices.

The set, by Ryan Howell, is most appealing to the eye. The large walls and floor are covered in artistic black and white abstract silhouettes, like linocuts. It’s engaging at first, but eventually its activity becomes distracting.

Long stairs lead up to a balcony at the back. A huge leafless twisted tree takes center stage.

A dozen thin neon tubes drop from the flies as needed, their colors changing – blue, green, purple, red, gold – depending on the mood of the scene. This treatment is so obvious and intentional that it does not always achieve the desired mood.

I have a lot of quarrels with Jessica Jahn’s costumes. Tamino wears a sort of beige modern trench coat. Yes, his right arm is covered with ornate golden armor – but, a colorless trench coat for this fantastic prince?! The three magical ladies wear satiny monochromatic dresses with large, brightly colored tulle skirts-swims. Just a little sticky. The three child spirits that guide Tamino are bound in a large blackish bag that is just plain ugly.

All Temple attendants wear plain white with the slightest speck of gray pattern on the skirts. I guess all that white was meant to catch the changing colors of light, but it doesn’t always quite work. Temple minions wear modern brown overalls with oddly accordion-style hoods.

The Queen of the Night should have an ENTRANCE!! She should surely descend the great stairway to heaven. But no, she enters rather timidly from behind the stairs. And she wears the simplest of slim white evening dresses. She does not look like a powerful queen, but like Saint Joan about to be burned at the stake. Her glorious “Vengeance” aria is completely blocked by many viewers by Tamino, who is positioned below her.

And then there’s Monostatos, the evil captain of Sarastro’s guard, who lusts after Pamina. This is indeed a problematic role. Monostatos is the Caliban of the room, eager even to impose his desires on the young lady. Disloyal, cowardly, not too brilliant, he is morally irredeemable. The booklet describes it as a “blackamoor”. In Christian lands, in Mozart’s time, the Moors had long been considered infidels, and therefore suspicious and untrustworthy, possibly evil (even long after 1492, when the Christian conquest of Granada ended the last Muslim reign in Spain).

So what’s a modern director to do with this role? Can’t be black. Can’t be a Muslim. But he to have to to be, like Caliban, visibly evil-somehow monstrous. Pamina’s offering to Monostatos by the Queen of the Night should mark her indelibly., the queen (not Sarastro), as the villain. One simply cannot present Monostatos as a handsome young man in a neat jumpsuit who sings with the beautiful voice of Christian Sanders (who plays the part). Monostatos, whose approach to Pamina should make us cringe in horror, seems in this production to be a perfectly acceptable suitor for her. Go fig tree!

But the glorious music makes all those issues seem barely significant.

It is, musically, a great production of a sublime opera. And as for the symbolism! Is the queen of the night the Catholic Church? Or Marie-Thérèse? Or Lilith? Or just superstition? Is Tamino Franz Josef? Try not to think about all that; relax and listen to these voices!

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