Director Madeline Sayet (a member of the Monhegan tribe) and her design team have fashioned a concept that centers on a Tree of Life imagery that has roots in both Native American and Judeo-Christian tradition.
Gone are the mysterious, pervasive tenets of Freemasonry, here replaced by an engaging coming of age story. In the second half of the overture, Tamino is revealed behind a scrim as a burnt out businessman, uptight and unhappy in his straight jacket of a business suit, assaulted by urban bustle and impersonal jostling. His soul impetuously leads him to the natural healing promise of unspoiled nature.
Troy Hourie has created a forest environment that is at once soothing and permeated by a mystic energy. Good vibe? Bad karma? Who knows? The slightly stylized trees subtly suggest primitive imagery. The imposing tree structure just left of center, reveals an upper “window” not unlike the apparition of Cinderella’s Mother in Into the Woods. The Speaker is first revealed here for his pivotal encounter with Tamino.
All of the set pieces are crafted of natural materials. At rise, a large sculpted structure of woven branches stage right simultaneously creates a bridge, a ramp and a tunnel. Director Sayet utilizes the environment with insight and imagination.
Eight woodland nymphs (dancers) are never far away and they imbue the tale with a ritualistic feel that embodies the story’s spirituality. The monster that chases Tamino consists of that dance team brandishing menacing tentacles of bare branches. That intimidation of the hero is a direct parallel of his having just been overwhelmed by urban life.
The lithe spirits are a terrific addition to the trials. As the group flails branches with fan-shaped white cloths attached to the ends, lighting designer Mark McCullough illuminates the action so that effect can flicker like flames, or roll and pitch like waves of water. As Mr. Hourie’s bowers of designer trees tracked to new positions, and Mr. McCullough cross-faded the lighting effects and adjusted the gobos and filters, the visual elements pulsed and glowed.
Costumer Kaye Voyce let her imagination run loose and she has contributed designs that are a heady mix of contemporary realism, and a Woodstock woodland fantasy. The horny three ladies are in free love, tie-dyed get ups. The Queen is an icily cool she-bitch that is the antithesis of her flighty attendants. Sarastro seems to be a white-coated environmentalist, accompanied by four “Priests” who have matching coats, phosphorescent green dickies, and appear to be kindred ecologists. Papageno is a hunter, in orange safety tunic, cammo vest and pants. Have you gotten the idea yet that there were some very detailed concepts at play here?
The director has effectively conspired with English language adapter Kelly Rourke who has not so much translated from the German as cunningly captured the essence of its soul and re-imagined it to good effect. I usually hate this juggling around and tampering, but I have to say that this duo has absolutely maintained the arc of the story, the intent of the journeys, the heart of the characters, and the glory of the musical vocabulary. It resonates. It touches. It repurposes a somewhat jumbled mix of ideas and focuses them beautifully in a focused concept.
Monastatos for once seems truly threatening. As he and his retinue skulk around the woods in hunter garb, there is an ominous, Deliverance-like menace to their scenes. If Cousin Itt and Sasquatch had had a Love Child, it would not look unlike Papagena when she first appears in a consuming, enveloping furry pelt. The chorus, tucked high up in the house balcony is invisible. Mysterious.
Not everything lands absolutely. When rather normal looking Papageno laments being unlucky in love because he is “different,” well honestly, any number of the Ladies of WalMart would snap this hunter right up. The ladies do not punish Papageno’s lies with an actual lock in his mouth and that surefire bit goes for little. And the flute itself was a puzzle. Tamino seems to be playing it like Kenny G blowing a soprano sax. I guess it really was magic!
The festival has assembled a first rate cast who threw themselves wholeheartedly into this engaging rendition, all the while singing with heart, stylistic acumen, and good humor.
I very much enjoyed Sean Panikkar as Tamino in last year’s St. Louis Flute and he has only gotten even better since. The handsome tenor possesses a bright, ringing, appealing lyricism that is a perfect fit for the role. Once in awhile, Mr. Pannikar seems intent to nail a note rather than just sing it, but he never loses his tonal beauty.
Jacqueline Echols was a near perfect Pamina. She commands an ideal Mozartean instrument, warm, somewhat instrumental, and completely at her service. If her character was at first a bit too hip and casual, Ms. Echols warmed to the journey and discovered a noble bearing. She was deprived of some gravity when her scripted set-up to Ach, ich fuehl’s was: Why won’t anyone talk to me? That is not at all the same import as the original: This is worse than death.
Ben Edquist found his footing as Papageno after a rather detached entrance aria. As the story evolved Mr. Edquist found a winsome charm and vocal confidence. I would urge him to bring the immediate conversational appeal of his singing in Act II forward to include the start of Act I. Jasmine Habersham was a perfect foil as his Papagena, her infectious high spirits and well-projected soprano were chockfull of fun and spunk.
So Young Park’s incisive, firebrand of a Queen of the Night was arguably the audience hit of the day. Her penetrating lyric tone was deployed fearlessly with staggering accuracy. Her fearless attacks were supremely controlled, sustained tones were full-bodied, and her fleet coloratura was nigh unto flawless.
The gifted young bass Soloman Howard, who was such a stirring Banquo in Macbeth, found Sarastro a substantially different sing. To be sure, Mr. Howard’s dark, imposing bass was capable of even lines and solid presence. But there is a serenity and inevitability in great interpreters of this part that are just beyond his current artistic reach.
Nicholas Nestorak revealed himself to be a wonderful singing actor as Monastatos. He invested his text with nefarious import and his lean tenor rode above the orchestra. Rhys Lloyd Talbot intoned the Speaker’s pronouncements with an appealing, measure baritone. Stephen Carroll and Anthony Schneider sang sturdily with inexorable forward motion as the Armored Men.
Raquel Gonz·lez, Aleksandra Romano, and Claudia Chapa were beautifully matched as the First, Second and Third Ladies, respectively. Their warm, appealing voices and excellent diction blended well yet each displayed an individual vocal and dramatic personality.
Joelle Lachance, Samuel Solomon, and Andrew Pulver were the scene-stealing Three Spirits. These three lads were beautifully trained, blended well, and were superbly focused, although in lower range they were occasionally covered by the orchestra.
Carolyn Kuan conducted with a clean delicacy. The requisite fire was summoned in aggressive passages, and there was loving attention to detail throughout. The orchestra responded with a warm, dramatically assured reading. I only wished that Maestra Kuan might discover a little more breadth and variety of pace in the critical exchange between Tamino and the Speaker. There are some important discoveries and revelations that seemed to press ahead rather than unfold.
Cast and production information:
Tamino: Sean Panikkar; First Lady: Raquel Gonz·lez; Second Lady: Aleksandra Romano; Third Lady: Claudia Chapa; Papageno: Ben Edquist; Queen of the Night: So Young Park; Monastatos: Nicholas Nestorak; Pamina: Jacqueline Echols; Speaker/Second Priest: Rhys Lloyd Talbot; Sarastro: Soloman Howard; First Priest: Brian Wallin; Papagena: Jasmine Habersham; First Armored Man: Stephen Carroll; Second Armored Man: Anthony Schneider; First Spirit: Joelle Lachance; Second Spirit: Samuel Solomon; Third Spirit: Andrew Pulver; Conductor: Carolyn Kuan; Director: Madeline Sayet; Translation: Kelley Rourke; Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel; Set Design: Troy Hourie; Costume Design: Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design: Mark McCullough; Hair and Make-up Design: Anne Ford-Coates.