- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

Postponed because of last weekend’s snow emergency, the In Series’ radically updated production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (“Die Zauberflote”) opened Thursday in the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ top-floor auditorium. Set in a contemporary drug rehab clinic, this colorful, over-the-top re-imagining actually might have amused Mozart, whose scatologically oriented funny bone has been duly noted by biographers.

We tend to look askance here at remanufacturings of old classics. However, in the case of “The Magic Flute,” almost anything would help its flimsy framework. The opera’s continuing presence in the repertoire is solely because of its divine music.

Mozart composed “The Magic Flute” in 1791 for the popular theater of his collaborator and co-librettist, theater director Emanuel Schikaneder.

Mozart festooned the opera’s dual romances with Masonic rituals and symbols, but Schikaneder added special effects such as dragons, lightning and the ever-popular “funny animals” that are charmed by the hero’s eponymous magic flute.

In Mozart’s original, Tamino, a Prince of ancient Egypt, is tasked with rescuing Pamina, daughter of the ominous Queen of the Night, from the clutches of the sinister sorcerer Sarastro. But Sarastro convinces Tamino of the Queen’s evil, drives off her courtiers and initiates the prince into his own order via a series of “trials.” In the end, Tamino gets the girl, the Queen is defeated, and in the subplot, the bird-man Papageno discovers his true love as well.

The In Series updates Mozart with a new book by Allyson Currin and new English lyrics by Kelley Rourke. Tamino is now a contemporary prince with a substance-abuse problem. Meanwhile, the Queen of the Night has morphed into the drunken ex-wife of Sarastro, who has turned from a magician into the purveyor of a swanky rehab clinic fighting with his ex for the affections of Pamina, their daughter. Papageno has become a pizza-and-wings delivery driver dressed outlandishly like a low-budget version of the San Diego Chicken.

Once he’s in Sarastro’s clinic, the modern Tamino’s “trials” involve drug detoxification primarily by means of that time-honored early 20th-century favorite, colonic irrigation. A trifle vulgar to be sure, but perhaps no more nonsensical than the trials in the original.

Because the In Series operates with a minuscule budget, the funny animals are gone, as are the magic flute and Papageno’s musical bells. They’re cleverly replaced by cell phones with Mozartean ring tones emanating from the tiny offstage orchestra.

The festivities are all set amid the backdrop of a delightful set. For the production, artist Helen Zughaib created a fantasy painting of characters from “The Magic Flute.” From this, she and her collaborators produced a series of giant, hand-painted cutouts reproducing the original figures. The resulting wildly colored scenery is a weird, pulsating hallucination calling to mind African and Egyptian imagery, the distorted figures of Picasso and the wild colors of Latin America — a gigantic LSD fantasy sprung from the mind of the drug-addled prince.

Ultimately, though, an opera is about the singing. The vocalists here range from competent to very good indeed.

The evening’s standout was soprano Randa Rouweyha. Her Pamina was totally ready for prime time, her tone bell-clear, her pitch spot-on. Not far behind were baritone Terry Eberhardt as the jive-talking chicken man Papageno and bass-baritone David Brundage’s almost subterranean “Dr.” Sarastro. Soprano Rebecca Ocampo did quite well with the Queen of the Night’s famous Act II aria, although her accuracy in hitting the cruelest high notes was occasionally wanting. The supporting cast was fine, although as Tamino, tenor Ole Hass sounded rather thin and experienced periodic difficulties with his pitch.

The small ensemble, conducted by Joel Lazar, was perfect for the style and mood of this production, and Joe Banno directed the work with great imagination. This is not your father’s “Magic Flute,” to be sure, and Mozart aficionados may be a bit put off by its raffish vulgarities. However, for this small company working with a tight budget, it is beyond a doubt the troupe’s most imaginative twist yet on Mozart.

**1/2

WHAT: The In Series production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” updated for the 21st century

WHERE: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, at 13th Street (two blocks from Metro Center)

WHEN: Today at 2:30 p.m.; tomorrow at 7 p.m.; Feb. 6 at 2:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $18 to $35

PHONE: 202/518-0152

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