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Beyond the Valley of the Freemasons

An impresario with a hit on his hands—Emanuel Schikaneder, for instance, after the initial run of Die Zauberflöte—will crave nothing so much as an opportunity to hit the same bell. If they laughed when you hit them with a dead chicken, hit ’em again with a heavier chicken. And an impresario/librettist who has created a triumphant starring role—Schikaneder was the original Papageno—will be even more determined. Unfortunately for Schickaneder, as for the rest of us, his music-man had gone missing.  

But this was Vienna in the 1790s. Mozarts sprouted beneath every Veilchen. Schickaneder located Peter von Winter, a tunesmith of felicity. (Mozart had detested him, as he did anyone who won commissions that might have been his.) Quicker than you can say “Beyond the Valley of the Freemasons,” two sequels were in the works; Babylons Pyramiden in 1797 (a collaboration between two or three composers) and, in 1798, Das Labyrinth (or, The Test of the Elements).

Labyrinth seems to have been written for the same forces who had been performing Flute since ’91, since it presents the same characters (with a few additions who don’t sing much) with pretty much the same vocal requirements. Without directly plagiarizing anything but the three mystical chords that begin the overture, von Winter winningly imitated Mozart’s effects with Mozart-like melodies of his own. It remained in the repertory around Germany for several decades.

Das Labyrinth has been unearthed lately at Salzburg and other festive sites. In New York, Amore Opera, the Amato’s feisty five-year-old successor at the Connelly Theater on East Fourth Street, gave this curious but attractive score its American premiere on Wednesday evening. There will be three more performances this month, alternating with their Magic Flute in the same colorful sets and spangly costumes.

Like their Flute, Das Labyrinth is sung in German (with surtitles), the dialogue in English. It is just the thing for those who find Flute too short or its plot too simple—or for anyone who loves Flute but would like to hear something new, of similar symbolic, fabulous and melodious content. That’s what audiences want: Something new and different that’s roughly the same.

Von Winter appears to have been a chameleon, able to imitate any style once someone else had invented it. His earlier operas are faux-Gluck, later ones faux-Weber with a dab of Rossini. (He lived till 1825.) On a first hearing of Das Labyrinth, several numbers approach the sublime (especially a quintet in Act I and grand arias for the Queen and Sarastro), and much of the music is convincingly cut from leftover Mozartean cloth. If you think it’s easy to write three hours of high-grade faux Mozart, try it sometime.

Amore’s enormous cast on opening night (most roles are double-cast) ran a considerable gamut of acting skills and musical precision, but the voices mostly gave pleasure. The star, in Schikaneder’s feathers, was Jonathan Scott, a bass-baritone of lithe and masculine tone and a master of the dim double-take, suavely dressed in tatterdemalion. He was well matched with his Papagena, Sarah Moulton Faux, in both dulcet cries and comic sputters, who flopped her silly costume to fine effect.

Their cuteness factor was equaled or overwhelmed by the dozen little Papageno siblings, armed to the teeth with candy-striped bows-and-arrows, who turned up to rescue their big brother from his rival for Papagena, Benjamin Bloomfield’s Monostatos, a lyric tenor of meaningful melancholy. In this version, Monostatos is not black but a jolly green lizard, and his lust for Papagena is matched by his sister, Gera, the lizard-queen (Megan Marod), who dances her lust for the susceptible Papageno.

But that’s all subplot really. In the foreground, Luna, Queen of the Night (Alexis Cregger), is trying to kidnap her daughter, Pamina (Iris Karlin), to marry her off to a leather-clad Greek kinglet. She is not above stooping to disguise (veiled priestess for herself, sex-change for one of her Ladies), love potions and a trip to the clouds to achieve her ends. Her stratagems are foiled, yet—beware the F in alt! Cregger’s voice is sizable and healthily produced, but the skyrocket filigree was all over the place on opening night. Karlin, too, has a lovely sound but (Mama’s girl!) would have made a better impression had she not attempted skyrockets herself. Tall Samantha Guevrekian, the First Lady who offers to change sexes to seduce Pamina (and nearly does it), Erika Hennings, the sensuous Second Lady who pulls a Potion on Tamino, and Jackie M. Hayes, as the Third, filled up the conspiratorial contingent ably. As in Flute, these are not mere walk-on parts.

Among the good guys, Duncan Hartman sang the serene but humorless Sarastro with the right cavernous depths, serene even when the situation looked hopelessly, um, labyrinthine. Evidently Tamino and Pamina have only undergone the trials of fire and water (in Flute). There are two more elements to go. (My guesses are Helium—how else does Papageno reach Luna’s Cloud Palace to rescue Pamina?—and Neon, for the light-up blue flute.) James Baumgardner cut a droopy figure as Tamino, who not only succumbs to the Second Lady but orders expendable Papageno to rescue Pamina. One could have forgiven his weak virtue had his tenor not been weak as well, but he warmed to his work in time for the climactic duel with his romantic rival. (Von Winter may have been satirizing Don Giovanni at this point.)

Gregory Buchalter led the scrappy pick-up orchestra. They would never be taken for the Met, but many individual instruments did well by the Mozart-styled delicacies, rippling accompaniments to the shenanigans onstage. You got a very good sense of von Winter’s skill and only afterwards did you realize that the more exalted dimensions of Flute had not been, could not be, recreated. Nathan Hull’s staging, in Richard Cerullo’s elegant Egyptian sets, was imaginative and witty, with a few endearingly low-tech accidents and a formidable children’s chorus directed by Seanna Burke. The costumes were by Ms. Karlin, the hairstyles (heavy on blue) by Pam J. Carter, the lighting by Lauren Bremen.

This ambitious little company, founded in a recession and struggling through it still, does an excellent job of providing work to ambitious young singers and classical music-theater to a corner of town otherwise without it. Loisaida (great name for an opera, I always think) used to lack any sort of night life, actually, but on this Wednesday at 11p.m., as I left the Connelly, the streets were lined with crowded bistros and trendy shops. Where has the Stygian East Village of yore gone?

Amore is a company that takes risks. They spice traditional rep with unfamiliar items that use the same sets and costumes and singers: Thus, they added Mercadante’s delicious I Due Figaro to a season of Rossini and Mozart Figaro operas, and paired Donizetti’s forgotten Olivo e Pasquale with the well-known Don Pasquale. Das Labyrinth is well worth hearing, a delectable night of music-making for anyone who loves Mozart or might love Mozart. And for a Christmas treat, they’re doing a run of Clown Nights: a double bill of I Pagliacci with Emmerich Kálman’s Circus Princess.

2 comments

  • Camille says:

    Thank you very much for your review of this rare production, Mr. Yohalem, as I had been curious of it and debating whether or not to attend. If you have given it the good word, one I know may be depended upon, well I will probably take the chance and go.

    • VivaVioletta says:

      Thank you so much for joining us on Wednesday night! I just had one small adjustment of cast that I’d like to mention. Erika Hennings is actually the tall one who tries to seduce Pamina (still 2nd Lady), and I, Samantha, am 1st lady (Tamino’s seducer). Thank you again for your review!