Review: "The Magic Flute"

West Bay Opera's "The Magic Flute' boasts fine voices, lush music, fanciful sets and lots of jokes

There have been much more lavish (and expensive) productions of Mozart's most popular work, but Palo Alto's plucky West Bay Opera continues to amaze with its ambitious mounting of this most complex operatic masterwork, "Die Zauberflote" ("The Magic Flute'). WBO General Director José Luis Moscovich rounded up a talented, creative team headed by director Daniel Witzke. The well-balanced cast of singers, led by the stellar comic-baritone Eugene Brancoveano, in his debut with the company, delighted a sold-out Lucie Stern Theatre last Friday. It is likely to be a hot ticket for the remaining three stagings of the four-performance run, which ends June 1. It is in German with English supertitles.

In the final opera of its 2013-14 season, WBO pulled all the stops, filling the stage with rousing choruses, choreographing a dozen frolicking youngsters, a wide range of ensembles and stunning, diverse set piece arias of memorable melodies.

In the just-under three-hour performance, the genius of Mozart runs the gamut from Italian-style opera seria to Germanic sentimental romanticism, French courtly style galant and comic opera buffa. The opera, which premiered in 1791 -- less than 10 weeks prior to Mozart's untimely death -- has turned out to be his most-performed work. This opera was written in German by librettist Emanuel Schickeneder, who also happened to be the operator of a suburban theater in Vienna, which staged productions aimed at middle class burghers and artisans, rather than the nobility with their far grander court theatres. It was in the form of popular and idiomatic singspiel with songs interspersed with talk, jests and philosophising. It was also heavy in Masonic symbols and ritual, which ultimately got it banned by the staunchly Catholic Empress Maria Theresa.

Maestro Moscovich conducted the 24-piece orchestra, about the same as the original scoring called for. The frothy combination of hit tunes, rapid tempo changes and a wide range of moods tested the dramatic and vocal capabilities of the cast with some of the mature Mozart's most magical music.

The labyrinthian plot sends young prince Tamino and his goofy bird-catcher friend Papageno on a journey to rescue a kidnapped princess Pamina. In the process they learn that the Queen of the Night her mother, is an evil witch and the alleged kidnapper, the high priest Sarastro, is really a good guy. The priest unites prince and princess, and even finds a suitable Papagena for Papageno to marry.

High tenor Brian J. Kuhn, looks princely and has light but true vocal instrument. Slender soprano Ellen Teufel matched the range and volume of her prince, especially in their aria "Soll ich dich, Teurer" ("So, Must we two Forever Part?"). She fared less well when paired with the powerful tones of Brancaveanu's Papagano.

Virtually every musical set piece was roundly applauded by the audience. The explosive coloratura fireworks from Queen of the Night Dana Pundt came in the solo aria Die Hoelle Rache" ("The Wrath of Hell"). Equally cheered was Brancoveanu's opening aria "Der Vogelsaenger bin ich ja"("A Bird Singer am I") followed by a bird call from a flute.

Deep male voices were in key roles and well-sung. Sarastro, sung by veteran bass Kirk Eichelberger, showed great stage presence but had a few challenges in sinking to the lowest registers. Stately bass-baritone, Douglas Nagel, who played The Speaker, and tenor Michael Desnoyers as the raunchy, treacherous Monostatos, each brought strong performances to these character roles.

Three sopranos, each of a different range, captured the beauty of blended voices of the Queen of the Night's aides. Liisa Davila, Molly Mahoney and Michelle Rice seemed to enjoy their sparkling metallic tight-fitting body suits. The three youngsters who helped guide Tamino and Papageno also proved how well young voices can blend. The trio included Aidan Bannon, Drakes Jordan, and Benjamin Bruxvoort.

Papageno finally wins a mate when Papagna tests him, pretending to be an 80-year-old instead of 18. A fine lyric coloratura soprano, Melissa Batalles, proved an athletic actress as well as a strong vocal partner. She and Brancoveanu brought cheers after their showpiece duet "Pa-pa-pa-pa."

The opera also offered a variety of stage tricks and business -- all played for laughs. In one, Papageno sings to a ludicrous hand puppet of his intended. In another he takes a glass of wine from an arm outstretched off-stage left. After it is drunk, he gives the glass to a similar outstretched from stage right. Frederic O. Boulay developed the video projections that moved the action from leafy gardens to stark temples, from stormy seas, smoky serpents and raging fires. Effective and a lot less costly than building and moving three-dimensional sets.

The serious elements of the enlightenment message that the opera sends forth were largely carried by the words to the chorus numbers. WBO's chorus master Bruce Olstad had his 24 peasants, priests and slaves performing at a high level throughout, with excellent articulation of the German.

West Bay Opera's remaining shows will be staged Sunday, May 25, at 2 p.m.; Saturday, May 31, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 1, at 2 p.m.

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What: Die Zauberfloete (The Magic Flute) by Mozart

When: May 25 at 2 p.m.; May 31 at 8 p.m.; and June 1 at 2 p.m.

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield road, Palo Alto

Info: Tickets $40-$75. Call 650-843-3900 or go to wbopera.org.


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