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Review: Pittsburgh Opera's 'Magic Flute' lives up to the name

| Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, 9:17 a.m.
David Bachman
Prince Tamino (former resident artist Sean Panikkar) encounters a monster.
David Bachman
Tamino and Pamina (former resident artist Sean Panikkar and Layla Claire) let the magic flute protect them during their trial by fire.

Appealing musical performances carry the day and night in Pittsburgh Opera's production of “The Magic Flute,” which opened Nov. 9 at the Benedum Center, and will continue through Nov. 17. The German opera is being performed in English.

The genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was at full force when he wrote “The Magic Flute” to a libretto by his friend Emanuel Schickaneder. Both comic and serious in Mozart's way, the music has all the charm, wit and depth of this composer at his best. The opera's words and music are filled with symbolism of Viennese free-masonry, a short-lived idealistic movement nearing its end when the opera was first presented in 1791.

The staging Pittsburgh Opera presented was originally created for Canadian Opera Company in Toronto by Diane Paulus. While it does generate plenty of laughs, it shows no sympathy for many of the opera's more serious aspects that motivated its creators.

The staging's concept is ostensibly a play within a play. In practice, it's not much more than an initial frame soon dropped entirely. The stage action in this production begins during the overture, when the curtain is usually closed. We see the opera's characters preparing for a performance of “The Magic Flute” as part of a birthday party for a wealthy family's daughter, Pamina.

The opera's first act is performed on a small stage, observed at first by Pamina, her father, others in the household and Pamina's mother, who is divorced from her father. Her father will be Sarastro in the opera, her mother, the Queen of the Night. The audience on stage is gone well before the end of the first act and dispensed with entirely in the second act, along with the tiny stage within a stage.

Fortunately, most of the cast was excellent Nov. 9, and the entire performance was shaped superbly by conductor Antony Walker. Nearly all the cast was a past or current member of a resident artists program. Most were from Pittsburgh Opera's program, and Layla Claire, who played Pamina, completed the program at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Pamina and her prince, Tamino, are the principal romantic couple in the opera, and both roles were superbly sung.

Soprano Claire has an exceptionally appealing voice in her middle and upper registers — clean and clear with just the right amount of warmth. She retains tonal luster up to the high B flats and has ample agility. Once the ditsiness of Pamina's personality during the overture is past, Claire's portrayal was a bit more assertive than one usually encounters in this part.

Tenor Sean Panikkar was thoroughly enjoyable as Tamino. His singing was never forced, and his voice carried very well. His beautiful tone carried smoothly across registers.

Audrey Luna's coloratura was confident and exciting in the Queen of the Night's two raging arias, even if her highest notes were a bit pinched Nov. 9.

While Oren Gradus was impressive in some passages, Sarastro's tessitura requires a singer with a much stronger lower register.

The almost purely comic roles of Papageno and Papagena were brilliantly performed by Craig Verm and Meredith Lustig. Verm's comedic talents were an unending delight, and his singing was consistently solid and well-colored. Lustig was a hoot pretending, at first, to be an old woman as a romantic interest, but she also showed the beauty of her voice when she reveals herself to be an attractive young woman.

The three ladies in service to the Queen of the Night who rescue Tamino from a serpent at the beginning of the opera were very well sung by Jasmine Muhammad, Samantha Korbey and Nicole Rodin.

Tenor Daniel Curran was a good sport playing the overtly devilish Monostatos that Paulus devised. Rick Mikol and Phillip Gay needed more vocal strength as the Two Armed Men.

The orchestra played extremely well throughout the opera, though more violinists would have been welcome. Woodwind solos were full of personality and admirable tone, while the brass and timpani were sonorously remarkable. The glockenspiel part was expertly performed on an electronic keyboard.

Walker deserves much of the credit for the evening's success. His pacing and balancing within the orchestra served the music well. However a few tempi, particularly at the end of the opera, were too fast, and, at times, the orchestra could have played more softly.

Pittsburgh Opera Chorus was superb, consistently producing firm, well-centered singing. Some of the staging was unintentionally funny, such as bearded ladies playing the three spirits. The more serious problem with the staging devised by Paulus was that it often undermined Mozart's sublime music.

“The Magic Flute” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Nov. 12, 8 p.m. Nov. 15 and 2 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $12 to $179. Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.org.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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