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The Magic Flute

Chicago Opera Theater

at the Merle Reskin Theatre, through June 11

The Magic Flute is at once the most and least accessible of Mozart's operas. It's often recommended as a starter opera for children because of its fairy-tale setting, its colorful characters, its many sprightly tunes, and its relative brevity, but for adults its symbolism can be obscure and its inconsistencies distracting. Even more troubling is its treatment of women and blacks. Most of Mozart's operas present the female characters as the equals of men in every important sense. Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro is every bit as intelligent and determined as her mate; Donna Anna in Don Giovanni is far stronger than Don Ottavio. The libretto for Cosi fan tutte makes Fiordiligi and Dorabella airheads and Don Alfonso an outspoken misogynist; but Mozart's music for the sisters often defies da Ponte's characterization and turns Alfonso into simply a sour old bachelor.

Yet the casual slurs uttered against women by virtually every male character in The Magic Flute are not easy to ignore. You don't have to be an industrial-strength feminist to bristle at the constant references to women as vain, chattering twits who tend toward overweening pride and betray their admirers without compunction, or at the Three Ladies (who, after all, open the opera by slaying a dragon to save the hero) singing "Men are strong, but we are weak." Then there's the institutional sexism: the motto at the Temple of Wisdom is "Guard against the wiles of woman: that is the first duty of the brotherhood." And tokenism: the princess Pamina is evidently the only case extant of "a woman who is not afraid of night and death [who] is worthy and will be initiated."

The opera's racism is less pervasive but still troubling. The Moorish slave Monostatos sings that black men are ugly and that white is beautiful, and references are made to the blackness of his heart as well as his skin; his villainy is clearly tied to his melanin. When he and the Three Ladies and the Queen of the Night team up to take on the white male establishment they're cast into perdition. Librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the intensely common-man role of Papageno for himself, was reflecting the views of his time, though he no doubt intended to render them in a comic way.

There are two ways to handle this sort of offensive anachronism. The first--which I favor in almost every case--is to remember the times and historic context in which the work was written and first performed and not try to force works from another era into a contemporary straitjacket (e.g., blue Ethiopian prisoners in Lyric Opera's production of Aida). Most people throughout history--even good-hearted and well-meaning people--have not thought or acted like end-of-the-millennium Americans. In fact, attitudes have changed significantly even in the lifetimes of today's audiences. Good program notes that remind us of this are particularly important when presenting an uncut work with its original language.

The second method is to rewrite like mad. This does not mean the kind of intellectual dishonesty of Peter Sellars--who has had his casts sing an opera in the original language, then made the surtitles say what he liked. It means changing the words that are sung. This should clearly be avoided in a recording (where there's a good chance the libretto and liner notes will be read) or in any other situation where it's important to present the original work in its entirety, but it doesn't seem illegitimate when a production is pure entertainment. After all, do we want to have more than half the audience gritting their collective teeth?

Chicago Opera Theater has taken the rewrite route, which seems wise given that its operas are always sung in English, making it hard to ignore the words. All of the sexism and racism have been removed by artistic director Carl Ratner and conductor Lawrence Rapchak, who have changed the words of Andrew Porter's translation of the musical numbers and eliminated more from the dialogue, which was translated by Ratner. I missed none of it. There was still enough good-versus-evil tension without the egregious insults. And to the extent that the characters were changed, it was for the better, though some of the cuts that seemed intended to streamline the show made the characters more difficult to understand; the dialogue between Papageno and Papagena, for example, flew by too fast.

The Magic Flute has always seemed like an obvious choice for COT, which built its early reputation on intimate, well-acted productions of Mozart's operas, and it's a little surprising to realize that the company managed to go more than 20 years without essaying it. For the most part, this production (the opening of the second season with COT's artistic team of Ratner and Rapchak) was pleasurable, though it had some major weaknesses, including several poor casting decisions.

COT has finally left the unfriendly confines of the Athenaeum, an infamous sweatbox featuring poor sight lines, a bad joke of an orchestra pit, squalid backstage areas, surly management, and a policy of booking other events--such as raucous weddings--in the basement hall when operas were being performed upstairs. (On the plus side, parking was free.) The company's new home is DePaul's Merle Reskin Theatre, aka the Blackstone. The good news is that voices project clearly from the stage, allowing the words to be understood without difficulty. The bad news is that the orchestra, in a largely covered orchestra pit with a low ceiling, sounds like it's playing in a cardboard box.

The handsome sets, borrowed from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, featured a starry backdrop reminiscent of the original 1791 Viennese production and a circular platform that held palm trees or standards. In a switch from the traditional Egyptian motifs, the mostly good-looking costumes were decidedly Slavic, seemingly borrowed from a Rimsky-Korsakov confection. (The sun hanging in the back was definitely Prince Igor though.) One caveat: Papageno (whose name comes from Papagei, the German word for parrot) looked more like a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism than a birdman, and he didn't match the rest of his family. His lack of plumage (perhaps he was moulting?) gave the lie to all the lines about his avian appearance. When he and Monostatos mistook each other for the devil both singers' unexceptional appearances made nonsense of their little duet. Monostatos needed something, perhaps some horns, to make him more Caliban-like. The use of long orange scarves and a flowing blue silk sail wielded by supers for the trials of fire and water nicely resolved the inherent technical problem, but where was Papageno's gallows tree?

This marked the opera debut of stage director Mary Zimmerman, whose Journey to the West just ended its run at the Goodman. Her vision of this magical opera was a bit too earthbound and devoid of pyrotechnics. Sometimes it descended to cheap laughs, sometimes it was simply distracting. Why must the Three Ladies flap the Queen of the Night's train as if they were shaking out a picnic blanket during the introduction to her important solo "O zittere nicht"?

Elisabeth Comeaux's securely sung Pamina was too pert and perky for the princess in the first act, but she's a strong and appealing performer who made us think about the words and feelings of her second-act aria "Ach, ich fuehl's" instead of about its technical difficulties. Barton Green's handsome Tamino was a bit stiff and occasionally his voice was somewhat constricted, though it was more than acceptable. Kurt Link offered a resonant and solid Sarastro, and Warren Moulton as Monostatos was impressively villainous. The Three Spirits--Sarah Klusak, Joanna P. Lind, and David Herrmann--were charming and sang beautifully.

As the Queen of the Night, Susan Wallin displayed a chirpy voice better suited to Blondchen than a villainess; it was prone to sharping and erratic in the money notes on top. David Huneryager's baritone was dry and pinched in the upper register, and his characterization of Papageno was on the colorless side. Individually the Three Ladies (Elizabeth Miller, Lesley Goodman, Susan Nicely) were fine singers, but they were mismatched in an ensemble where the blend is important. The chorus was impressive, singing sonorously, although they were noticeably off the beat in some of their offstage singing. And the Papageno clan could have used a few more kids.

The opera started inauspiciously, severely delayed due to Blues Festival traffic and with a prolonged tune-up that didn't solve all of the pitch problems; perhaps the mugginess affected the instruments. Rapchak presided over a ragged overture and some painfully slow tempi, but the whole was generally effective.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.

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