Monday, January 12, 2009

Reverend’s Reviews: A Magical Flute at LA Opera

An audience member, not to mention a critic, needs to be on their best behavior when Sir Peter Hall is sitting directly behind them during the opening of his latest production. The renowned theatre, opera and film director doesn’t miss a trick, and he has put his full artistic arsenal to work to create a glorious re-staging of Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute).

LA Opera and Hall collaborated on previous mountings of Mozart’s classic musical fantasy in 1993, 1998 and 2002. The tale, about a young hero’s romantic and spiritual quest, has been an enduring audience and critical favorite ever since its premiere in 1791.

This production and the fantastic opening night cast will ensure that the popularity of The Magic Flute lives on. The orchestra, under the direction of maestro James Conlon (who just had his title at LA Opera changed to “Richard Seaver Music Director” in honor of the company’s late, most generous individual benefactor) played Mozart’s lovely score beautifully. Conlon and the musicians get extra kudos for refusing to permit a couple of jarring, crashing noises emanating from the pit and/or backstage on opening night to distract them.

In the wrong hands, the campier aspects of The Magic Flute libretto and characters can be played up to the opera’s detriment, but Hall skillfully avoids this. That’s not to say there aren’t some enjoyable nods to camp in this production, most notably in cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s imaginative scenic and costume designs and Beth Clayton’s hilarious performance as the Queen of the Night’s “Third Lady.”

Much of the advance press for this production was devoted to the “beefcake” pairing of tenor Joseph Kaiser as the protagonist, Tamino, and baritone Nathan Gunn as his bird-catching sidekick, Papageno. While the possibly less-sexy but vocally more-than-capable Matthew Polenzani played Tamino opening night, it was easy to see what all the fuss was about in regard to Gunn. Clad in yellow tights that revealed every contour of his muscular legs and thighs as well as a pronounced codpiece, Gunn kept audience members’ eyes riveted to him every time he appeared. He’s a great singer and comedian, too.

Vocally, L’ubica Vargicova as the Queen of the Night stole the show with her assured, crystal-clear handling of the challenging coloratura Mozart whipped up for the villainess. Also impressive in the opening night cast were Marie Arnet as the heroine, Pamina; Gunther Groissbock as the wise Sarastro; Greg Fedderly as the amusing, conniving Monostatos; and, as the Queen’s two other “ladies in waiting,” Tamara Wilson and Lauren McNeese.

LA Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute” runs through Sunday, January 25. For tickets or more information, please visit their official website or call 213-972-8001.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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