- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

Dark magic. Funny animals. An evil queen. A huge dragon. And terrifying ordeals of fire and water. This can only mean that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s nutty but popular opera “Die Zauberflote” (aka, “The Magic Flute”) is back in town at the Kennedy Center Opera House, courtesy of the Washington National Opera. This whimsical production, imported from the Los Angeles Opera, is as colorful as the Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Written as a German “singspiel” interspersing spoken dialogue with music, “The Magic Flute” was Mozart’s last opera and one of the last major works he composed. It is still astonishing today to think that this comic confection — a curious blending of fantasy and odd bits of homage to Freemasonry — was penned by a composer whose health was failing and whose end was near.

Loaded with Egyptian allusions and references to numerology and other arcana, the work is set in no particular time period. Its flimsy plot is laughable, with a pair of cardboard-cutout upper and lower-class lovers enduring supposedly frightening but rather benign ordeals in order to purify their love for one another. To this day, no one really has a clue as to what really motivates them to operate as pliant pawns in Mozart’s grab-bag tribute to Masonic rituals.

Clearly, it’s the composer’s marvelous music that keeps this work in the repertoire. “Magic Flute” is one of few operas where you can just relax and enjoy the music without having to worry about whether the characters are believable or not.

Making far more imaginative use of projected scenery than the company’s currently-running production of “Maid of Orleans,” this “Magic Flute” is a visual treat. Set and costume designer Gerald Scarfe’s concept pops with bright, virtually day-glo colors. And the traditional animal parade is populated with creatures ranging from stately Egyptian-style lions to a hedgehog that looks like he crawled out of a big box of Crayola crayons.

Scrims and projections are cleverly employed, getting maximum mileage and fun out of what must have been a relatively modest design and construction budget. And the bright costumes and symbols are beautifully integrated into the overall visuals. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated design while at the same time looking as if a talented 7-year old had a hand in the design.

The company’s music director, Heinz Fricke, had the WNO Orchestra sounding like a large, unified chamber ensemble as it provided beautiful accompaniment for the singers. But, alas, the singing itself could have been more inspired, at least on opening night. And the production’s pacing at times seemed dreadfully slow.

Soprano Amanda Pabyan, as the Queen of the Night, sounded small and distant in her initial appearance as she descended from the sky. Placed too far back on the stage, her voice possessed the quality of fine porcelain but did not carry well. Singing the Queen’s famous coloratura aria later in the evening, she missed a high note and navigated Mozart’s treacherous figures with imprecision.

Tenor Michael Schade sang pleasantly, but never quite seemed to get into the role of Tamino, the opera’s nominal hero. On the other hand, soprano Andrea Rost (Pamina) sang brightly with verve and elegance.

The Queen’s three “ladies” (Barbara Quintiliani, Keri Alkema, and Ann McMahon Quintero) were buxom comic delights. Tenor Robert Baker was sensational, portraying the evil Monostratos as a tubby, green-meanie villain. Baritone Rod Gilfry always managed to pick up the comic pace as Papageno, the fantastic bird-man. Soprano Amanda Squitieri was a sprightly Papagena. And bass Kwangchul Youn was authoritative as the mysterious Sarastro.

**

WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote” (“The Magic Flute”)

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Today and Saturday at 7 p.m., Wednesday and April 12 and 15 at 7:30 p.m., April 17 at 1:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $45 to 290

TELEPHONE: 202/295-2400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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