'Magic Flute' mostly a delight
The sheer ambition shown by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh in reinventing itself as a summer festival would be striking in a prosperous time. Now, when so many organizations are cutting back, it is vastly expanding the scope of its activities.
It launched the Mildred Miller International Vocal Competition, named for its founder, in 2011 and right away picked as its winner a singer who went on to be one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in March.
Opera Theater Summerfest began Friday with the one of the organization's traditional strengths — staging opera sung in English with smartly chosen young singers. But the festival also will include six short operatic premieres, a concert series, pre-concert performances, a vocal-training program, master classes, a camp for delving into the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and a Fringe festival of other performances.
Artistic director Jonathan Eaton's new staging of Mozart's “The Magic Flute” was a delight to encounter Friday night at The Hillman Center for Performing Arts at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel.
Eaton found a different angle from which to approach the opera but one that was harmonious with the heart of “The Magic Flute.” He framed it as a dream and placed all the action in a single set, the dreamer Tamino's bedroom. Tamino is a young prince who finds himself in a strange land, where he encounters conflicts and love in a journey to greater enlightenment.
Juan Jose de Leon sang a wonderful Tamino. The tenor has already shown a big voice and versatility as one of Pittsburgh Opera's resident artists. His Mozart was stylishly heroic as well as tender of heart.
Sabrina Warren was a superb Pamina, using her ample and open voice with affecting directness as Tamino's lover.
Dimitrie Lazich brought wonderfully confident vocalism and deft comic timing to his role as Papageno, a bird catcher. Tamino may be headed toward enlightenment, but Papageno is interested only in simple pleasures. He's thrilled when his girl Papagena, well-played by Caitlin Cisler, brings him a bottle of Iron City.
The opera's villain is the Queen of the Night, Pamina's mother. Sarah Saias sang the notoriously difficult coloratura brilliantly, and at fast tempi. If anything, she grew stronger as the evening progressed.
Christopher Temporelli was mostly impressive as Sarastro, spinning out a rich legato with dignity. The role's very lowest notes were problematic, but almost always are.
One experiment that didn't work for me was casting countertenor Andrey Nemzer as Monostatos. The role is a subsidiary and comic villain who wants to take advantage of Pamina. Nemzer, who won the Mildrid Miller and Met competitions, sang with intensity and acted well, but the role needs the lower tenor voice for dramatic credibility.
Smaller roles were variable. The Three Ladies, who save Tamino at the start of the opera, were excellent. The Three Boys had pitch and other problems. One of the two Armed Men was strong. The one on the audience's right did not project adequately.
Conductor Bernard McDonald led a well-characterized performance, including some surprisingly spacious tempi that the singers justified, in most cases. The opera was performed in a reduced orchestration and with some cuts.
Beyond the many points of individual excellence, Summerfest's “The Magic Flute” was an ensemble effort filled with Mozartean joy. The festival is off to a strong start.
“The Magic Flute” will be repeated at 2 p.m. Sunday and July 8, and 7:30 p.m. July 14 at The Hillman Center for the Performing Arts at Shady Side Academy, 423 Fox Chapel Road, Fox Chapel. Admission is $22.50 to $75. Details: 412-326-9687 or http://otsummerfest.org.
Mark Kanny is the classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or email@example.com.