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May 17, 2010

Opera Vivente puts Baltimore spin on 'The Magic Flute'

Given that we don't have a surfeit of great singers these days, it's no wonder that stage directors have moved into the forefront of the opera world, as in no other time during the history of the art form. This means, of course, a whole lot of concepts floating around.

Directors routinely put their emphatic stamps on standard and contemporary operas alike, a process that can generate wonderful results, with fresh insights enhancing the experience for performers and audiences. Things can also get a little messy, too, needless to say. You'll recall the rampant booing on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera this season for Luc Bondy's unconventional take on "Tosca"; that kept the blogosphere sizzling for weeks. In 2003, Yuri Temirkanov walked out on a production of "Queen of Spades" he was to have conducted at Opera National de Lyon in France when he felt a stage director had gone too far afield. Last week, Carl St. Clair handed in his resignation at the Komische Oper in Berlin after being forced to conduct a literally trashy staging of "Fidelio" -- with Florestan singing his aria in a dumpster. Ah, but I digress.

Opera Vivente's Baltimore-ized production of "The Magic Flute," which opened over the weekend, isn't likely to set off over-heated reactions. It's a workable, often imaginative approach. I didn't hear any boos Friday night at Emmanuel Episcopal, and I can't imagine any of the artists would have ever considered quitting the venture to protest liberties taken. Everyone in the place seemed to have a grand time with it, and the audience ate up the local allusions (as Young Victorian Theatre patrons do every summer when references to Baltimore people, places and events get tossed into Gilbert and Sullivan operettas).

The most pronounced and entertaining Bawlmer element in OV's "Flute" is

a Papageno who has been turned into a nerdy Orioles fan peddling team souvenirs. The character is nowhere more colorful than when, singing about finding an ideal wife, he punctuates his aria with perfectly timed flips of the lids on Natty Boh cans. There are laughs to be had, too, from the sight of the Three Ladies who dispense with the "snakes" -- in this case, paparazzi following Tamino around -- and their pouting teenage girls as the Three Spirits. The trials of fire and water are given an interesting spin. They take place behind closed doors of a boiler room, as security guards clown for cell phone photos outside; Pamina and Tamino emerge from one suitably scorched, the other suitably wet.

In the end, though, I wish there were a little more Mozart and a little less Bowen. His English version of the libretto has contemporary zest, but also some vulgarisms that seem gratuitous. Speaking of vulgar, the scene between Pamina and the threatening Monostatos sticks out for a crudeness that doesn't match the rest of the staging. And turning the wild beasts of the original opera into panhandlers and street persons strikes an awkward note. The director's touch is most heavy-handed, though, when Pamina reaches her Act 2 aria, one of the most eloquent moments in the score. While she sings, Papageno has a noisy nosh with bags of snack food, spray-cheese-in-a-can and more. Yeah, the Papageno shtick is funny, but the visual and aural distraction creates a peculiarly anti-musical effect.

Speaking of wishes, I would have welcomed stronger casting here and there. On Friday night, the weakest vocal link was Frederic Rey as Tamino. Except for some pleasantly shaded soft passages, his singing sounded effortful and inelegant. As Pamina, Leah Inger offered expressive phrasing, but not quite enough tonal warmth. John Dooley had a romp as Papageno. Even if his accent veered more toward Cockney than Dundalk, his endearing characterization carried the Baltimore concept along nicely. The baritone's vocal contributions were a decided asset as well. Marcy Richardson didn't master the hon accent, but sang brightly and offered vibrant acting as Papagena. Joy Greene stole the show, vocally, as the Queen of the Night, navigating the treacherous coloratura confidently. David B. Morris didn't have the deep, dark bass notes for Sarastro, but his eloquent singing paid handsome dividends just the same. The rest of the cast brought more or less effective vocal talent and a good deal of spirited acting to the production. Jed Gaylin efficiently conducted the small, mostly reliable orchestra.

Like Center Stage's "Importance of Being Earnest" production back in the fall, the "Flute" set relies on large block letters to provide the main scenic props, in this case spelling out "HON," and they're cleverly manipulated into various shapes along the way.

Remaining performances of "The Magic Flute" are on Thursday and Saturday.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:47 AM | | Comments (4)


I went to the Sunday show and had a star-flaming good time. I agree with your points about awkward moments (particularly Papageno's feast antics continuing through Pamina's beautiful aria), but this is overall a very smartly done update. Online posts and pre-performance talks by Opera Vivente made a strong case for it, too. Let's not forget, also, that OV still delivers some fine opera in original settings, most recently Cinderella, Albert Herring and Coronation of Poppea. (Not making promises, but I must add that my discussion of this Flute with non-opera-going friends aroused curiosity, and one of them planned to buy tickets.)

I have not seen it yet but the clips I saw on the BALTIMORE SUN web site made me want to go. I bought tix for my teen age son and all his little performing arts entourage to go. I heard that people have LOVED this! That is what matters. The opinion of the folk would have mattered to Mozart...and I think he would have approved of this approach. I think John Bowen will prove to be another Baltimore home grown genius. Let's show some respect.

I would disagree that there aren't great singers out there performing and auditioning every day for a chance to perform. I think there is a separation between great singers performing and those same singers getting cast and in some cases, great singers just aren't cast for whatever reason. Any musician will have many instances, either personal or from friends, of this happening. It's the nature of the business and the nature of directors casting to fit their artistic vision. But I don't think one can say that because the singing in recent performances they've attended has not been good means that the whole crop of Baltimore singers is bad and that as a result there is a lack of talent here. That's short changing a lot of really good young singers before you've ever heard them sing. IMHO.

However, I'd agree with you that the staging and presentation of The Magic Flute using several Baltimore stereotypes falls well-short of "genius."

For the record, I was talking universally, not locally, when I mentioned the age of great singers being in decline and the age of directors in the ascendant. TS

While it certainly seems the age of great singers is in decline and the director is ascendant, which came first? How many great Ariadnes are there who never get heard because they won't fit in a little black dress? How many singers just turn their backs on the profession because they are tired of performing crap that has nothing to do with what the composer wrote? This is not directed at OV - there is always room for the fringe, over the top production at a venue that makes it clear that's what they are about. But could you, in your wildest dreams, imagine Tebaldi putting up with Bondy's Tosca; Callas standing still for the ridiculous Met Lucia; Gobbi putting up with hookers in Scarpia's study? Singers with strong artistic ideas, with rare exceptions, get marked as "difficult" and don't get hired; singers with less than perfect bodies who can sing the music get passed over for fashion plates who can't. Luisa Tetrazini probably couldn't get an audition at the Met today; Caruso might get a few Rhadames or La Juives, but he'd never sing La Boheme today. So, which came first - the lack of great singers of the lack of directors who respect the creations of Verdi, Bellini, Rossini, etc?

Very good question. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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