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February 25, 2011

Baltimore Symphony presents lively concert version of 'The Magic Flute'

There is some risk involved when orchestras present opera in a concert format. They've got to keep the operatically inclined portion of the audience from feeling short-changed by the lack of scenery and costumes, but they also have to keep the operatically-averse portion of the same audience from feeling threatened or bored.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra strikes a pretty neat balance with its semi-staged version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," which has generated strong interest at the box office. (Final performances are Saturday and Sunday.)

It helps, of course, that this is a very popular opera by a very popular composer. By the same token, such familiar fare still needs some freshness, even when performed concert-style. There's a good deal of flair in the BSO's version, which features engaging, vocally reliable singers, a few props and atmospheric lighting.

This is no stand-and-sing affair, but includes lots of effective stage business (bits involving rope are particularly amusing), directed by Michael Ehrman, a veteran of many a staged opera production.

A key asset in this venture is

BSO music director Marin Alsop. On Thursday night at Strathmore, she conducted the nearly complete score with admirable attention to contour and nuance.

It wasn't necessarily the most individualistic take on the music, but Alsop's tempos always felt right and her phrasing had a consistently communicative quality. She can always be counted on to offer the big view of a work, to take in the overall architecture; here she ensured that the organizational solidity, not just the incredible melodic invention, of the opera registered beautifully.

The cast contained the sort of talent that would be encountered in fully staged productions at some very respectable opera houses today. Jonathan Boyd, as Tamino, sang with a good deal of tonal warmth (some strained top notes aside), not to mention eloquence of line and sensitivity to dynamic shading. Emily Albrink was an endearing Pamina. Occasional edginess in the singing was easily forgotten amid all the expressive richness and charm.

Stepping into the role of Papageno on short notice, Daniel Cilli proved to be a very amiable actor and vocalist. If his baritone seemed a little underpowered, the subtle beauty of his tone and his lieder singer-like phrasing came through handsomely. Danielle Talamantes chirped sweetly in her brief appearance as Papagena.

Morris Robinson poured out mighty bass sounds as Sarastro. More gradations of volume would have added to the impact, but it was hard to argue with the sheer nobility of the singing. Mari Moriya negotiated the treacherous vocal domain of the Queen of the Night's arias in intrepid fashion. Peter Burroughs had a mostly persuasive romp as Monostatos.

Members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program helped round out the presentation stylishly -- Jegjung Yang, Sarah Mesko and Cynthia Hanna as the Three Ladies; Aleksey Bogdanov and Jeffrey Gwaltney as the Armed Men. (UPDATE 2/28: A cast change made late in the game and not passed on to the press or the public Thursday night led to an incorrect name among the Three Ladies in my original review.) 

There were sweet sounds from Danielle Buonaiuto, Elizabeth Merrill and Julianne McCarthy as the Three Spirits.The Baltimore Choral Arts Society did vibrant work and, with few exceptions, produced a finely graded blend.

The orchestra seemed to relish the opportunity to dig into this much Mozart at one sitting (the running time of just under three hours, with one intermission). There was graceful playing from the strings, a good deal of warmth from the woodwinds and brass.

The opera's original spoken dialogue is omitted in favor of periodic narration -- delivered with flair by veteran actor Tony Tsendeas, who also gets into the act here and there -- but the script seems rather redundant most of time. No matter. All things considered, this version of "Magic Flute" produces more than a little magic of its own.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:08 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Opera


The chorus was under-used. Several very affecting choral sections were omitted.
Some of the costumes were not apt: Monostatos in a tuxedo! What disappointed me was the final 20 minutes or so were taken up with Papagano: taking a long time to decide to hang himself. At this point all the noble music, all the great characters: Sorostro, Pamina, Tamino, had concluded their parts and we were left with extended clowning that was a poor ending, I thought, to the performance.
Tim, don't you think that some of the spoken text could have been used to provide continuity as well as to show the opera as it was origninally presented?

As for the lack of choral music and the construction of the last 20 minutes of the opera, I think you'd have to take that up with Mozart. As for costumes, I didn't expect any, since it was a concert version. And as for spoken dialogue, I think that would have been problematic. You can sing unamplified in concert halls, but it's harder to be heard when speaking. Not sure how much would have been gained. I would have focused the narration a little more tightly on continuity issues. TS

I'm not sure what opera Mr. McNally attended, but Die Zauberflote was given virtually note complete. (The misogynistic C-major duet for the two priests was the only extant number omitted.) The chorus portions were not cut in any way.

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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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