The Magic Flute offers an opportunity for gifted young singers to learn and perform an opera frequently booked around the world. That made it a logical choice for the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). In addition, its fairy-tale story makes for easy audience enjoyment.
Yet, among the classic operas, The Magic Flute is one of my least favorites. The story preaches, the characters are stereotypes, and it’s loaded with Masonic references that fascinated Mozart more than they do music lovers today. But this is, after all, the last opera by the immortal Mozart and remains notable for that reason.
A little sing, a little spiel
Mozart composed it in 1791— the year of his death at age 35 — in collaboration with Emanuel Schikaneder, who ran his own vaudeville company and performed the role of Papageno at the premiere. The work takes the form of a Singspiel, a popular form of entertainment that included singing, spoken dialogue (in German), and visual jokes.
The vocal tessitura is not extreme, except for some high Fs by the villainous Queen of the Night. Rather, The Magic Flute requires style and grace instead of spectacular effects. AVA’s resident artists were able to meet these demands with poise. Outstanding among them, tenor Jonas Hacker was the star in more ways than one.
First, he’s an accomplished Mozartean tenor who played the lead roles of Don Ottavio in AVA’s Don Giovanni and Ferrando in Così fan tutte. He also sang Bach’s Cantata No. 150 with the Philadelphia Orchestra in February. Here, he was at the top of his game as The Magic Flute’s hero, Tamino. Hacker graduates AVA’s four-year program this month, and I’ll miss him.
Second, Hacker played an additional role in director Jeffrey Buchman’s unusual conception of the opera. The lights went up (during the overture) on a library in a prosperous home. Hacker reclined on a couch, apparently a member of the family. He rose, fetched a book from the shelves, sat down, and began reading. Soon he fell asleep and the Flute story began; the entire plot played out as his dream.
Before he dozed off, an attractive maid (Alexandra Nowakowski) flirted with the boy as she dusted the bookshelves. In his dream, she became the character Pamina, Tamino’s love interest.
Tamino, on a quest for knowledge, is confronted by Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night (Meryl Dominguez), who tries to prevent the couple’s marriage. Sarastro (Anthony Schneider), a wise old priest, dispenses positive guidance skeptics might describe as homilies. A secondary love story develops between a bird catcher, Papageno (Anthony Whitson-Martini), and Papagena (Rebecca Gulinello), a young woman Papageno adores because she looks so much like him.
Dominguez was especially impressive as she cleanly proclaimed the difficult, high staccato passages in Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen ("Hell's vengeance boils in my heart").
Even smaller roles were held by artists who have impressed audiences with their performance in lead roles in past productions. It’s the sort of luxury casting we’ve come to expect from the extraordinary students who passed AVA’s entrance auditions. (Three of the main roles had alternate casting during the company’s five-performance run.)
Christofer Macatsoris, music director of AVA, conducted the 34-person orchestra boldly, with sonorous brass and horns and dancing, skipping strings. The story may be simplistic and childlike, but the music is clearly the work of a mature master.