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The Magic Flute [Photo by Victor Massaro courtesy of Phoenix Opera]
11 Dec 2010

Magic Flute, Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Schikaneder had known each other for some time before they wrote The Magic Flute.

W. A. Mozart: The Magic Flute

Vale Rideout: Tamino; Jennifer Nagy: Pamina; Kevin Burdette: Papageno; Lisanne Norman Brooks: Papagena; Zdenek Plech: Sarastro; Anna-Lisa Hackett: Queen of the Night. Carroll Freeman: Director.

Above photo by Victor Massaro courtesy of Phoenix Opera


In 1791 Schikaneder, who was a fine actor and a capable singer, wanted a theater piece from Mozart because he thought the name of the well-known composer would attract a large audience to his Theater auf der Wieden. Since he needed a piece that would have a broad appeal, he asked for a singspiel. That format, which has spoken dialogue between the sung numbers, was then an extremely popular form of entertainment.

Schikaneder’s sources for the opera’s libretto included a book of imaginative pseudo-oriental fairy tales which were published by Jakob August Liebeskind in 1786 under the title Dschinnistan. In it, a story called “Lulu, oder der Zauberflöte” (“Lulu, or the Magic Flute”) gave the librettist some good material. He drew on other sources as well and he used Masonic symbolism. Mozart was a member of the Masonic Lodge in Vienna. Schikaneder applied for membership in his native Regensburg and was turned down, but he probably succeeded in becoming a member in Vienna. Both wanted to interest lodge members in coming to the theater.

More than two hundred years later we don’t know a great deal of what went on at rehearsals, but this has come down to us. Bass singer Sebastian Meyer is quoted as saying that Mozart originally wrote the duet where Papageno and Papagena first see each other quite differently from the way in which we now hear it. Originally they were to cry out “Papageno!” and “Papagena!” a few times at the beginning. Schikaneder told Mozart that the music must express greater astonishment. He said that at first they should stare dumbly at each other, then Papageno should begin to stammer ‘Pa-papapa-pa-pa’. Papagena must repeat that until both of them finally get the whole name out. Mozart followed the advice, and in this form the duet had to be encored at numerous performances.

On Friday evening 3 December Phoenix Opera presented Die Zauberflöte in a version which featured arias sung in German and dialogue spoken in English. The wonderfully imaginative original production was by David J Castellano. The stage director overseeing the Phoenix performances was Carroll Freeman and he told the story effectively. Boyd Ostroff’s set, built for the Opera Company of Philadelphia, was positively enchanting. The costumes by A. T. Jones and Son were attractive, functional and fit the wearers well. Conductor and Choral Director John Massaro drew fine playing from his orchestra and kept the chorus singing the exquisite harmonies accurately. Lisa Starry, together with the Scorpius and Cannedy Dance Companies provided spirited dances that enhanced the story.

As Tamino, tenor Vale Rideout sang with a rich sound that soared over the orchestra. He is a good actor, too, and he energized his text with conviction. The real star of the evening, however, was the Papageno, Kevin Burdette. He has a large powerful voice with a burnished robust sound and excellent German. His bright, vibrant personality pervaded the entire theater, especially when he entered from behind the audience. His interpretation gave us an idea of what Schikaneder’s performances must have been like.

Jennifer Nagy was a secure Pamina who sang with lovely bell-like tones. The most difficult role to cast in this opera is that of the Queen of the Night. Unfortunately, local voice teacher Anna-Lisa Hackett had problems with both of her admittedly difficult coloratura arias. It’s not easy to find a good bass for Sarastro, either, but Zdenek Plech proved to be thoroughly capable. He had a fine tone, secure technique and he seemed to have no trouble at all producing the lowest notes. He should have a good career ahead of him. As the Speaker, Earl Hazell sang with dark tonal colors that rang true. His wife, Alexis Davis Hazell was an amusing Third Lady who sang the bottom line with passion. As the other two ladies, Julie Davis and Erin Tompkins blended their close harmonies beautifully and played their parts with visual piquancy.

Gabriel Gargari was a humorous Monastatos who was often surrounded by his energetic slaves, portrayed with gusto by Ryan Glover, Dennis Tamblin and Aubrey Allicock. Allicock doubled as one of the Armed Men along with Francisco Renteria. Both sang with handsome sounds, as did the Priests, Guillermo Ontiveros and Christopher Herrera. Lisanne Norman Brooks was a cute and bouncy Papagena with a charming lyric voice. As the Three Spirits, Kristin Jensen, Dana Brooks Atwood and Kerry Ginger showed a flair for comedy as they sang with rich, agile voices. Although it was not a perfect performance, it was nice to see a local group put on this great masterpiece.

Maria Nockin

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