Mozart’s whimsical Magic Flute from Washington National Opera

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Wild things abound in this production of  Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute, currently playing at the Kennedy Center. With Maurice Sendak’s artwork at its forefront, the opera’s elements of childlike whimsy makes it an entertaining night for audiences of all ages. Conventions of opera are adhered to, with all of the classical training obvious in each and every performer, from the principals to the chorus … yet there’s something more to it.

There’s whimsy and there’s a clear focus on the power of young people: something this opera always inherently does with its magical story about the journey of a prince, Tamino, and his sidekick Papageno, not to mention its accessible, tuneful Mozart score. This production highlights with no apologies in a language that children can understand: clear English (not the original German) and fun storytelling all-around.

Neil Peter Jampolis realizes the Maurice Sendak scenic design and artwork in a way that allows for wonderful theatrical moments, with lighting design (John Garofalo) that brings it to life even further. It’s clear from the moment the curtains open up and the audience’s first glance is a Maurice Sendak illustration highlighting the moon above the priest. There’s a beautiful connection between static image and dynamic, live theatre through this design. As the light on the scrim dims and the audience begins to see the physical set behind it, for a moment, one might think that the fantastic creatures in the illustration are also onstage.

And then the opera begins and the audience immediately sees the three ladies (Alexandria Shiner, Deborah Nansteel and Meredith Arwady – a fearsome trio who can also be flirtatious) attacking a serpent that is coming after Papageno. Said serpent, quite adorable with its big green eyes, waddles out almost unsuspectingly until it’s killed, smoke comes out of it and it creeps offstage. A wide array of creatures inhabit this production besides our friend the dragon: lions with golden manes and creatures right out of “Where The Wild Things Are” that resemble trolls.

Pamina and Tamino are the heart of the story. Sydney Mancasola’s Pamina brings a master class of a performance in “Ach ich fühl,” fully using the legato lines to demonstrate the character’s sadness and allowing her voice to travel up and down fully and freely, which is not easy to do in that aria. David Portillo’s lush tenor provided for a romantic feel for Tamino with just the right amount of vibrato, especially in his opening arias, and when Tamino decides to join Sarastro’s brotherhood, Portillo portrays that resolve with strength and fervor.

Michael Adams as Papageno is the standout in this production. His soaring tenor has a powerful speaking voice to match, with a slight twang that characterizes the chatterbox excellently. Adams finds moments to make the score his own and to create physical comedy with the role and allows the audience to laugh at him, all while making Papageno a person that you want to root for. Especially in his interactions with Papagena (a winning Alexandra Nowakowski), all culminating in the “Pa-pa-pa-Papageno” duet where they celebrate their love, he crafts a truly winning character. Nowakowski is a standout in her own right, as well. Her reveal from the cleaning lady to Papagena’s true form, with bucking “ahhh”s turning into a beautiful true-to-opera “ahhh,” was a comedic highlight of the show.

As the Queen of the Night, WNO veteran Kathryn Lewek (who played the same role in 2014) takes control of the stage and pulls off a stellar “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” that was the crowd pleaser of the night. Although she seemed a little off (one could wish for her to get some of the notes from right on top of them, not by working up to them), she still remained in character and made the number a showstopper. Her rival in this story, Sarastro, played by Wei Wu, has a lyrical bass with low notes that are a joy to hear. It can be soft, and one could wish that he could allow it to boom out a bit more, but overall his voice matches the character well.

On a libretto note: I can appreciate the original choice of librettist Emanuel Schikaneder to ground the story with spoken moments; however, sometimes I wished that I could hear more singing, as some of the book scenes tended to drag out and contributed to a feeling of the opera starting to feel long. One full scene in the first act was entirely spoken and, to be quite frank, it was forgettable. The second act opened with the priests and followers talking, rather than a grandiose opening like that of the first act, and I wanted to just get to another magical, musical moment again. Although the performers played the straight acting scenes as best as they could (some rather excellently: at one point, Papageno conjured up two imaginary chickens to play with, much to the chagrin of Tamino and much to the enjoyment of the audience), musical moments in combination with powerful acting and design choices are what draw people to The Magic Flute; filler book scenes, not as much.

However, that doesn’t discount all of the incredible moments of this opera. Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute takes you on a journey with unexpected moments.Take it all in with heart and joy, and try to remember the childlike wonder of seeing your first opera or musical.

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