Aug. 2 Glimmerglass: The Magic Flute

Sean Panikkar plays the prince (Tamino) in The 2015 Glimmerglass production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," sung in English (photo: Karli Cadel)

Sean Panikkar plays the prince (Tamino) in The 2015 Glimmerglass production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” sung in English (photo: Karli Cadel)

Glimmerglass’s ‘The Magic Flute’ a muddled journey with no clear sense of direction

Madeline Sayet, directing her first-ever opera production, misses a golden opportunity to take the celebrated singspiel in a daring new direction

By David Rubin

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a major challenge for even experienced directors. While the music is sublime, the story is a puzzle that few have solved satisfactorily. How do the “trials” of fire and water that the young lovers Tamino and Pamina undergo transform them? Why should the audience side with the priest Sarastro, who steals Pamina from her mother, the Queen of the Night? Who is Sarastro, anyway — and what does he represent other than light to the Queen’s darkness?

Sorting all this out for the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown was the task of the young director Madeline Sayet. This was her first assignment in opera — sort of like facing Serena Williams in her first tennis match. Sayet is Native American and her mother is the Medicine Woman of the Mohegan Tribe. She chose to set the opera somewhere in the northeastern woodlands, perhaps near Cooperstown’s Leatherstocking territory.

Clearly the audience was jazzed for a really new take on Flute, perhaps one portraying the Queen as a strong clan mother instead of the usual stock villain. Perhaps Sayet would address the white man’s despoliation of Native lands and the subjugation of Native people. Sarastro could be blamed as the engineer of these disasters. Anything new would have been welcome to help make sense of the Masonic fire and water rituals concocted by Mozart’s collaborator Emanuel Schikaneder — rituals that are now meaningless in our era.

Sayet started off in a promising fashion. Tamino is the executive of a major corporation, dressed in a suit and tie. In a pantomime during the overture he is besieged by his employees to sign this contract, read that document and attend to a thousand other tasks. He flees the Wall Street madness in despair, ending up in the woods, his tie loosened.

These woods seem to have been through a forest fire, or some ecological disaster. There is no greenery, no leaves. All is bleak. Sayet is signaling an environmental Flute, perhaps with a Native perspective.

But then… nothing. Her conception is stillborn. Any Native American influence is hard to detect. There is no environmental message. The Queen is still a stock villain dressed in a silky dark dress. Sarastro, like Tamino, wears a fashionable banker’s suit covered by an odd long white driving coat (the meaning of which is obscure). But he and his men are still the forces of light and good.

The trials of fire and water through which Tamino and Pamina proceed are particularly feeble in this production — with a few woodland spirits waving cloth banners, to little effect. At the finale, Tamino still gets the princess Pamina and goes back to Wall Street. He has not changed as a man in any recognizable fashion. The Queen is defeated, although her three ladies seem to have switched to Sarastro’s side, again unmotivated.

In short, this is just another muddled Flute—and a huge missed opportunity.

Fortunately we have Mozart’s music, which can do the heavy lifting for any misguided production. The fine Glimmerglass orchestra was in the skilled hands of conductor Carolyn Kuan, music director of the Hartford Symphony and formerly associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony. (In 2003 she was the first woman to be awarded the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Fellowship.)

Kuan set a lightning pace in the overture and encouraged the tympani to thwack away. She kept the opera moving, even during the longueurs of the second act’s fire and water rituals. Save for one problem of coordination with the singers following the trial by fire, Kuan was master of the proceedings.

The singers were adequate to the tasks at hand, but no one was a natural Mozartian.

Sean Panikkar (left) as Tamino and Jacqueline Echols as Pamina (photo: Karli Cadel)

Sean Panikkar (left) as Tamino and Jacqueline Echols as Pamina (photo: Karli Cadel)

Both Tamino (tenor Sean Panikkar) and Pamina (soprano Jacqueline Echols) have voices heavier than the norm for these light roles. Panikkar’s voice has more metal in it than sweetness, and his phrasing is blunt. Echols showed to better effect at Glimmerglass in Verdi’s King for a Day, where she had much better direction. Here, she was wooden — although her voice is juicy. I’d like to hear her as Michaela in Carmen.

The Sarastro, bass Soloman Howard, also sang better in this season’s Macbeth, where he was a sympathetic and stentorian Banquo. The young singer hasn’t quite grown into the lower notes of Sarastro’s cavernous role, although the middle of his voice is glorious. In another 10 years Howard should own this role.

From left: Ben Edquist as Papageno, Soloman Howard as Sarastro and Sean Panikkar as Tamino (photo: Karli Cadel)

From left: Ben Edquist as Papageno, Soloman Howard as Sarastro and Sean Panikkar as Tamino (photo: Karli Cadel)

Ben Edquist, a member of the Glimmerglass Young Artist program, was a slightly underpowered Papageno. His absurd costume—fur hat with winter earflaps, bright orange hunter’s shirt, patterned socks, sandals and some sort of woodsy tunic (designed by Kaye Voyce) made him look like a UC Berkeley refugee from the 1960s. Costume aside, Edquist was unable to elicit many laughs for this lovable character.

His Pagagena was Jasmine Habersham, also a Young Artist. She grasped the humor in her character, overcoming a hideous costume that made her look like a walking bush. Her duet with Papageno, as they contemplate all the children they will parent, was a vocal and comic highlight.

As the Queen, Young Artist soprano So Young Park offered a soft-grained first aria, but revved up the anger in her second aria. Her top was secure and attractive.

The villain Monostatos was sung by Young Artist Nicholas Nestorak. In this production he was not very menacing, nor was he encouraged to use his character tenor voice to evil effect. Nestorak was more memorable in a variety of parts in Candide, in which he showed his acting and vocal skills.

Of the many smaller roles, special notice should go to the three young spirits — Joelle Lachance, Samuel Solomon, and Andrew Pulver. The costumes provided by Voyce represented them as owls, with snowy white capes and black tunics. They sang strongly, in tune, and with spirit. Lachance is from Glens Falls, and Solomon is from Cooperstown, so the home team had a good day.

Sayet and Kuan did close the opera in splendid fashion, positioning the chorus in the balcony on both sides of the auditorium for the rousing finale.

Along with Kuan, the artistic heroine of the afternoon was Glimmerglass dramaturg Kelley Rourke. She provided an entirely new English translation for both the book and the lyrics, tossing out much of Schikaneder’s original. Her new lyrics were a gift to the singers, so naturally did they fit Mozart’s melodies. Time and again I was smiling at her clever rhymes and how she remained faithful to the spirit of the piece, yet providing a modern perspective. Schikaneder would have been envious of her skill. Rourke deserves a special award for having given this disappointing Flute what spirit it had.

One can only wonder what Rourke would have done had she been able to impose a new directorial concept on this Flute. I suspect that if Sayet gets another chance, she will not be so deferential to the original.

Details Box:
What: Mozart’s The Magic Flute, directed by Madeline Sayet
Language: Sung in English with projected text, based on a new translation by Kelley Rourke
Performance reviewed: Aug. 2, 2015
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: About two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $144 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Website: glimmerglass.org
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 7 and 14; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 10, 14 (all-Young Artists performance), 18 and 23

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