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Sound system bedevils ‘Flute’

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2007

he Washington area is never far from another performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's popular opera "Die Zauberfloete" — better known here as "The Magic Flute." This time around, it was the Wolf Trap Opera Company's turn to stage the work, borrowing minimalist sets from the New York City Opera for two performances this past weekend at the Filene Center in Vienna.

What's not to like in "The Magic Flute?" In the work's roughly three-hour running time we get an autocratic wizard moonlighting as a high priest, an evil queen who fires off a bucketful of high Fs, a hero with the sophistication of Forrest Gump, terrifying ordeals that happen offstage, a parade of funny animals and loads of Masonic symbolism.

The only thing lacking is any semblance of a coherent plot.

Written as a German "singspiel" interspersing spoken dialogue with music, "The Magic Flute" is classic "opera lite," a predecessor to the operettas and Broadway musicals of our own era. Sadly, Mozart, already in poor health, died barely two months after the work's premiere.

Friday's performance of the opera was enjoyable, but at times, iffy. One problem with staging opera in the Filene Center is that unlike traditional venues where the singers work without microphones, the outdoor amphitheater's vast space requires a certain degree of electronic amplification to get the sound out to the lawn.

That amplification was not always optimal on Friday. The orchestra, under the baton of Robert Wood, sounded mushy during the overture. The young cast, meanwhile, seemed quietly concerned about the quality of the sound they were putting out, distracting them at times from doing their best.

Nonetheless, there was a lot to like in this production. Soprano Rebekah Camm was impressive in the role of Pamina, Mozart's much put-upon heroine. Her rich, plummy tones and her poise on stage overcame any issues she might have had with the electronics. Likewise, baritone Liam Bonner, as Papageno, leavened librettist Emanuel Schickaneder's two-dimensional book with a deft comic touch backed by a hefty, well-supported instrument that would make for a wonderful Figaro.

Soprano Bronwen Forbay, as the Queen of the Night, was an effective ball of self-righteous fury, negotiating Mozart's wicked figures with a gossamer, youthful touch. And yes, she did nail the high Fs in the Queen's famous Act II aria, "Der Holle Rache" ("The Vengeance of Hell"), although the trip up to the first one was a bit precarious.

Tenor Beau Gibson sang with assurance, unveiling a well-supported instrument that shows great promise. Yet his Prince Tamino seemed at times somewhat less than ardent. Bass Marc Webster's Sarastro was dignified and authoritative, although his lowest notes seemed occasionally hard won. The sound system did him no favors here.

The Queen's three "ladies" (Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller, Faith Sherman, and Ronnita Nicole Miller) were decidedly a cut above the usual trio. Tenor Rodell Rosel was amusing in the role of the cartoonish villain, Monastro. Soprano Erin Morley was charming in the small role of Papagena. And the chorus assembled for this production was well-rehearsed and quite impressive.

**

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS