Another very agreeable evening in San Francisco, another very agreeable production at the Opera. I don’t tire of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” but this was the first time I had heard the production in English.
The pre-concert talk was therefore a necessity in order to address why a) it has been decided to sing it in English and b) to also understand what they had done with some of the spoken dialogue (this opera being a ‘singspiel’). SF Opera General Director David Gockley and conductor Rory Macdonald had apparently worked something out !
Did this work ? Yes and no. With a nod to the economy, Papageno notes that to have a bird catching gig in the current employment environment is not a bad thing to have and with a nod to sustainability, he proudly states that his bird catching is the most sustainable operation in the world ! You get the idea. A Magic Flute for current San Franciscan tastes. Some of the humour was therefore lost on me.
Jun Kaneko’s set designs involving precisely timed light changes and projected images might have caused ruffled feather with the older set who expected the usual temples and pyramids that you might expect to find in a ‘traditional’ production of Zauberflote. That said, I think everyone did like the two-headed dragon. But it was noticeable in the after-concert gossip that those younger audience members and particularly those more aware of the Japanese-influenced costuming enjoyed it more. For someone new to opera set design, Kaneko executed the brief brilliantly and one hopes that these sets can be used in other productions around the world.
Vocally, this was a good cast. Tenor Alek Shrader was suffering from a cold and this was apparent in much of the first Act but he held things together very well and by the end, you couldn’t tell. Soprano Heidi Stober as Pamina dressed and looked the part as Alice in Wonderland which created a nice parallel to the whole.
The two best members of the cast were Nathan Gunn and Albina Shagimuratova – Gunn as Papageno looked like a multi-coloured fruit salad and gave the necessary character and colour to his character. His singing and mannerisms were memorable and complementary to the whole set. Shagimuratova, making her debut with the San Francisco Opera was excellent as the Queen of the Night, clear in both diction and in her superb singing. The full house justifiably gave her the biggest accolades of the evening for her arias in both Acts but particularly in Act II.
The Three Ladies (Melody Moore, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum) also deserve mention – they too got into the comedy dialogue a bit. Nadine Sierra was a comedic and colourful Papagena. Unfortunately, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Sarastro was not on the same level as the rest of the cast with some rather strained and weak low notes but filled the stage physically in a superb Mikado constume. The same vocal issues were, sadly, experienced with the Three Boys which seemed a little bizarre although one could possibly put this down to opening night nerves.
Conductor Rory Macdonald, also making his San Francisco debut, got a good, solid performance from the orchestra although there were times where a touch of fatigue from the previous night’s performance of Attila crept in ever so slightly.