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The Magic Flute
By Bob Bahr
If there's one term to describe the Kentucky Opera Associations production of Mozart's "The Magic flute," it would have to be "user-friendly." If "The Magic flute" were a movie listed in the newspaper's TV listings, it might be encapsulated as "a simple bit of operatic fantasy using traditional German folk melodies and exotic Egyptian backdrops." But anyone "tuning in" to "The Magic flute" for any amount of time at all would have seen it as much more.
True, humor often depended on age-old gags: the battle of the sexes, the antics of the hero's cowardly sidekick, the use of small children and animals. This is a remarkably likable opera, fit for any age, any taste. The fast-moving, romping opera was commissioned by a Viennese actor / playwright / theater proprietor named Emanuel Schikaneder for a somewhat lowbrow theater production. This may explain the light-hearted tone, sight gags and elaborate props and costumes.
Which is not to say that the more discriminate opera-goer wouldn't find things to involve him or her. This is undoubtedly a Mozart opera, written by Mozart at the height of his powers. Though the setting may be frivolous and the aim to entertain, certainly this is a work with all the grandeur, grace and beauty that thrills Mozart lovers. No composer deals with such themes, with such accomplished and masterful composing and then goes on to infuse the music with an optimistic, joyful splendor that words could never describe. No matter who you are, no matter what you are looking for, you could find "The Magic Flute" entertaining, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable.
Could all this beauty and potential be ruined by a bad production of "The Magic Flute"? Yes, but this was not the case with the KOA's recent production. Excellent stage direction, enchanting performances from Richard Rebilas as Papageno and Susan Wallin as the Queen of the Night, and an unassuming quality about the whole production made even the rough spots endearing. (Particularly the campy entrance and exit of stuffed birds when the character of Papageno the Birdcatcher was introduced.) Visiting Conductor Robert Bernhardt made the famous overture come to life and helped marry the music to the activity on stage, more of a feat in this action-oriented opera.
Marilyn Taylor was sweet, seductive and sincere in her portrayal of Pamina, Donn Everette was solid as always in his role of the speaker. Walter MacNeil's Tamino was boring and lifeless, a perfect foil for Papageno, but no more. Monostatos, played by Dean Anthony, was a manic, bowlegged spoiler. I liked watching Anthony's Monostatos, but it was a bit much.
The plot is a familiar one. A beautiful princess (Pamina) is being held by an evil man, in this case the High Priest of Isis and Osiros. (Why a high priest instead of the traditional "evil king"? Undoubtedly a title of convenience to coincide with the Egyptian setting.) A brave and romantic young man (Tamino) falls in love with a picture of Pamina and accepts the task from Pamina's mother, the Queen of the Night, to rescue her.
Here Schikaneder's creative tailoring dresses up the plot. A ditzy birdcatcher (Papageno) in the service of the Queen grudgingly agrees to accompany Tamino on his quest. The two are given a magic flute and magic bells by the Queen of the Night. Papageno immediately succeeds in rescuing Pamina, while Tamino has been tempted by the discipline and honor of the Temple of Wisdom, Labor and Art, presided over by the evil priest himself (Sarastro). Two themes emerge here. The Temple of Wisdom, Labor and Art is a thinly veiled reference to Freemasonry, of which Schikaneder and Mozart were both members. Also, Papageno's quick success while the hero is distracted and unproductive shows the common man proving his mettle, a device that would no doubt prove popular among Schikaneder's audience.
Papageno and Pamina find Tamino, but unfortunately also find themselves captured by Sarastro. Pamina's grief is worsened by Tamino's sudden interest in the ways of Sarastro's temple and his lack of interest in her love. She decides to end her life, but three wise young boys (?) stop her in one of the trio's several opportune appearances. The three boys, local students of voice ranging from alto to soprano, give the audience plenty of chances to fawn over their cuteness. Librettist Schikaneder didn't pull any emotional punches.
Monostats, after playing the only clearly evil character in the play, gets 77 blows with the switch for making rude advances on Pamina, and is later dismissed for a second attempt. With these punishments, Sarastro begins to emerge as the wearer of the white hat. Meanwhile, the Queen of the Night appears to Pamina and orders her to kill Sarastro, producing a dagger for the deed.
Pamina barely considers this course of action. Tamino and much more reluctantly, Papageno, undergo a long initiation process for entrance into the Temple. Along the way, Papageno meets an old hag who claims to be the lonely Papageno's true love.
Pamina and Tamino are allowed to perform the last steps of Temple initiation together and with the help of the magic flute, the two succeed unscathed by fire and water. Meanwhile, the old hag is revealed to Papageno to be Papagena, a similarly feathered and similarly demeanored girl-bird. Papageno is overjoyed, then a priest separates them. Papageno is distressed and attempts suicide, but is stopped by the trio of sweet-voiced boys. Papageno uses the magic bells at the urging of the boys and Papagena appears.
One last battle vanquishes the Queen of the Night's forces led by the traitorous Monostatos and Pamina and Tamino are Wednesday Papageno and Papagena appear with several little Papagenas and little Papagenos. The crowd is overwhelmed by the cuteness of it all.
The opera was punctuated by two outstanding episodes of coloratura by the Queen of the Night, soprano Susan Wallin. These examples of coloratura remind the listener that perhaps no instrument is more beautiful and awe-inspiring than the human voice. Coloratura segments like these really show off the singer's ability and demand a high degree of skill. One really must hear them to appreciate what is happening, but imagine a bit of scatting, or a skillful jazz solo section sung with notes hovering around high C. My mouth dropped open.
Another admirable aspect of this production of "The Magic flute" was Richard Rebilas' reading of Papageno.
Aside from being an accomplished operatic singer, Rebilas proved a fine actor, a good comedian and an appealing show-stealer. Never overacting yet never resting, Rebilas was the crowned entertainer in this most entertaining of programs.
To say that the KOA's production of "The Magic flute" had something for everyone is misleading. "The Magic flute" had LOTS for everyone, not the least of which was a very enjoyable evening – guaranteed.