Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Spirit of a Provincial MAGIC FLUTE

Last May I wrote about how the San Francisco Lyric Opera had captured a tradition of "suburban" opera, which could be traced at least as far back as the first performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Zauberflöte. The opera that drew me to this "suburban" experience was Heather Carolo's staging of The Turn of the Screw, the opera composed by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper based on the novella by Henry James. This weekend Carolo applied her skills to the Opera Theatre Department of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a "condensed version" of Die Zauberflöte in an English translation by Marcie Stapp. This may not have faithfully captured the letter of Emanuel Schikaneder's production at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden; but one could not have asked for greater fidelity to the spirit of the affair, particularly in light of the fact that this was intended as a production for "children of all ages" (as Rick Harrell, who runs the Conservatory's Opera Program, put it). The condensation was pretty radical, dispensing entirely with the Speaker of the Temple and Sarastro, neither of whom has much opportunity to "move it" (as any kid fan of the Madagascar films can tell you); and the "orchestra" was reduced to piano, flute (only for the "magic" scenes), and conductor. Nevertheless, Carolo seemed to recognize that playing to kids was not that different than playing to coarse Viennese suburbanites. So she went for broke with only a handful of special effects (which seemed to be "effective" enough for the audience) and humor that was more casual than earthy. Clocking it at about 75 minutes, the production hit all the points that mattered; and the music was performed with a sure ensemble of well-trained voices.

My one question is that whether Carolo indulged herself with one bit of humor that was sure to be lost on all of the kids and probably most of the parents. This was a vision of the Queen of the Night that seemed to be based heavily on Joan Rivers. It is often observed that anyone who has seen A Night at the Opera can never again attend a performance of Il Trovatore and keep a straight face. Carolo may have similarly warped my ability to appreciate any future "serious" portrayal of the Queen of the Night. Nevertheless, her approach was entirely consistent with the production; and I suspect that, if they had the ability to understand what she was up to, both Schikaneder and Mozart would have applauded her irreverence!

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