The Magic Flute

It’s a trifle sad when the most praise a critic can muster after seeing a performance of Mozart’s sublime masterpiece, The Magic Flute, is for the sets and costumes

BY Charlie Richards

January 16 2009 1:00 AM ET

It’s a
trifle sad when the most praise a critic can muster after
seeing a performance of Mozart’s sublime
masterpiece The Magic Flute is for the sets and
costumes, but this, alas, is the situation I find
myself in tonight.

Not that the Los
Angeles Opera performance was bad. All in all the cast
was quite acceptable (with fleeting moments of brilliance),
but The Magic Flute demands more than this. There
are passages in the opera that can raise the soul to a level
that one rarely experiences elsewhere in the theater
-- passages that reassure the listener or viewer that
all is well with humanity, that man has something of
the divine in him after all. All these passages passed by
this evening in a rather lackluster haze. But it was
nice to look at.

First, then, to
what was right -- Peter Hall’s Magic Flute is
one of the most enchanting this critic has ever
viewed. In a world where opera is being increasingly
appropriated by wunderkind directors who inflict their own
belabored concepts on the viewer, it’s
refreshing to see a production that follows the text
simply for its own sake. Very often in the past I’ve
found that I’ve had to attempt a “Vulcan
Mind Meld” with the director in order to
understand what he was getting at -- not so this evening.
Everything in Hall’s production works -- and
beautifully so.

From the opening,
where the proscenium arch is decorated to resemble the
giant serpent that threatens our hero, to the very simple
staging of the finale, I found myself breathless with
wonder. Tasteful uses of lighting and projection went
hand in hand with Mozart’s magnificent score, and the
costumes were colorful and imaginative. The famous scene in
the first act finale in which Tamino charms wild
animals with his flute (hybrid animals this time --
which we’ve seen before, but never so endearing as
tonight) elicited well-deserved spontaneous applause
from a delighted audience. The production was just
about perfect in every way.

So, then, what
was wrong? The magic was there in the production but lost
in the music. Matthew Polenzani certainly looked the part as
the Prince Tamino, but while the voice was steady and
flawless, nothing was put across that was distinctly
memorable. The same could be said of Marie
Arnet’s Pamina -- a pretty voice, but with little
personality of its own. “Ach, Ich Fuhls”
has never seemed less compelling.

Tags: Theater