Monday, October 22, 2007

A Queen of the Night to Remember

The Artist Profiles in the program for the new San Francisco Opera production of The Magic Flute (shared with the Los Angeles Opera) described Erika Miklósa as "Sought internationally for her interpretation of the Queen of the Night." It is easy to see why she is so much in demand, as she is, without a doubt, the first coloratura I have actually witnessed who gave the impression of being comfortable with the demands of the role that make it so notorious. I first came to know this music through an old Herbert von Karajan recording on which Wilma Lipp sang the part with an effortlessness that I was too young to appreciate. (The same can be said of George London's performance of Sarastro on that recording.) In many ways this is the ultimate high-wire act; and most audiences tend to be satisfied as long as all the notes are in the right place at the right time. Miklósa convinced us that, for her, performing a solo, no matter how demanding it may be, had to be more than acrobatics. Whether her approach to modulating the dynamics of her delivery to provide the emotional character supported by the text was her own conception or whether she worked it out in conjunction with conductor Donald Runnicles, she rescued this poor Queen from her usual flat stereotyping. Indeed, when one gets beyond those acrobatics, one appreciates the complementary relationship between the (astral?) heights of her cadenzas and the (earthy?) depths of Sarastro's low notes. So Miklósa and bass Georg Zeppenfeld (making his American opera debut) perfectly nailed the musical representation of the dialectical opposition of their respective characters.

For all that, however, we should remember that this opera was first offered as what might best be described as "suburban entertainment." Librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder was not after the insights into the multifaceted human heart that Lorenzo da Ponte had provided Mozart for Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and (without a doubt, the deepest of all) Così fan tutte. The comedy directs low blows at women and blacks, the characters are basically made out of cardboard, and the action freezes to allow the characters to deliver fortune-cookie style moral precepts with a frequency that would be annoying were the music not so wonderful. Making this opera "work" on the stage is no easy matter; and the directors who do it best tend to apply an it-is-what-it-is strategy. Peter Hall departed a bit from this approach, most notably by changing Monostatos' color to green, leaving us to wonder if Schikaneder's text for "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freunden" should not have been changed to "It isn't easy being green;" and most of the demeaning text about women was dismissed. As to the volt face of the plot line, when the point of view shifts from the Queen of the Night to Sarastro, Hall did not try to tease out any underlying logic, because, at the end of the day, the logic really is not there in the first place. (I do remember one production, though, that tried to suggest that the serpent pursuing Tamino at the beginning of the opera was actually put there by the Queen of the Night.)

So, if we are to chuck the logic and enjoy the spectacle, then it is enough to enjoy Mozart's music (easy enough when it is under the control of a conductor like Runnicles getting every voice on stage and every instrumentalist in the bit to deliver at peak performance) and drink in all the eccentricities of the design by Gerald Scarfe. These days the design for The Magic Flute seems to be all about the animals. Why else would the Met bring in the director of The Lion King for the job? The cover of the program book prepared us for the fact that Scarfe had a taste for the chimerical, covering a scale from an oversized ostrich with the neck and head of a giraffe down to a penguin that could have come out of Happy Feet had it not had the head of a crocodile. The cover, however, did not prepare us for the penguin-crocodile having red sneakers, which was a very nice touch, indeed.

The cast of The Magic Flute is too large to reduce crediting every voice in laundry-list style. However, I was particularly struck by a last-minute cast change that offered "auxiliary" interest beyond the coupling of Miklósa and Zeppenfeld, which I found so interesting. The Speaker, who provides Tamino with his first impression of Sarastro's realm, was sung by Philip Skinner. It was not just that I was pleased with the quality of Skinner's voice but that I remembered him from last week, when he scared the hell out of most of the audience in his performance as Edgar Ray Killen in Appomattox. Here is someone with both vocal and acting chops for an operatic repertoire that has become as broad as it now is. I look forward to seeing what other elements of performance he brings to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House.

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