Pa-Pa-Pa-Planter’s Punch

The story on the season so far: 2015-2016 has been, since its announcement, a little tough to get excited about, but the company San Francisco Opera keeps triumphing over its conservative repertory choices in one way or another. Finally, with a primary color, projection-heavy English-language Magic Flute that’s going to feel like a matinee whenever you see it, the season has lived up to its initial promise.  

Granum salis: I do not love The Magic Flute. At best, it’s three good arias and some forced clowning. At worst, it’s like getting mugged by the Easter Bunny. This revival, with its faintly topical dialog, seemingly aimed at gay eight-year-olds but apparently also squeal-inducing to the kind of middle-aged people who have to narrate their own experience whether there’s a performance happening or not, is more the latter than the former.

I do wonder if there’s something about doing an opera in English that makes people think they’re part of the show. Utterances that couldn’t wait for intermission on Sunday ran the gamut from “the dreaded dragon!” to “it’s so misogynist!” (the past is another country: they don’t have trigger warnings there) but I suppose my favorite by virtue of its koan-like quality was “it’s Mozart.”

I can’t say quite why the singing didn’t rescue this dull outing. Sarah Shafer, the standout in this summer’s Two Women, was in ravishing voice—tonally sweet as honey, but with a little muscle to the sound that distinguished her from many a young singer doing Mozart simply because it’s age-appropriate. Hers has surely been the most exciting debut of the year and bids fair to stay so.

Just the same, there was scant chemistry between Shafer and Paul Appleby as Tamino. Appleby is a capable young tenor on the rise. He would seem to have outgrown the role of Tamino, and sings it as if he knows it, punching out some impressive but stylistically peculiar high notes. It’s a good vocal performance, but it’s not an interesting use of his talent, and emotionally it’s a bit of a blank.

Harry Silverstein’s whimsical production may not have helped matters. Directors tend to take the fairytale bullshit of Schikaneder’s libretto as carte blanche to unleash their childlike sense of wonder, which can be hell for those of us who like stories for adults. Is there a kernel of actual human relations at the heart of The Magic Flute? Probably not, but some day I’d love to see a production that at least takes a shot at it.

Silverstein, working with sculptor Jun Kaneko, went the same direction Julie Taymor did for the Met in its celebrated production. In purely visual terms, it’s never less than striking, but the imagery is most successful when it’s at rest. Projection as a scenic medium remains fraught with the peril of making everything look like an early 90s screensaver or, in several scenes here, a lightcycle match—Tron on a canvas by Mondrian. My matinee companion wondered if the whole aesthetic sprang from a place of “Hey, kids! Opera is cool!”

The real problem, though, was the dramatic ethos, Singspiel as regional children’s theater, underpinned by a translation credited to David Gockley “with additional material by Ruth and Thomas Martin” I think I’d be equally comfortable calling subtractional material. Jokes about “the star flaming queen” sounding like something in a drag show and so forth were a bit auf der Nase.

The worst of this inevitably fell to Efrain Solis, a terrific young singer we can probably begin calling “a house favorite.” Clad in the pelt of a Rubik’s Cube (and in birdface, which has not yet passed from political favor) Solis was called upon to do the usual winking and smirking as Papageno, and did so gamely, with extra vocal suavity as perhaps a gift in apology.

The singer I had been most curious to hear, Albina Shagimuratova, called in sick, and was ably spelled by Kathryn Bowden, palpably nervous in the recit-like first half of “O zittre Nicht” or “O chillax, home slice” or however they render it in pandering updatey translations, but note perfect in the rest of the role.

Greg Fedderly did about as much as anyone could with Monastatos while dolled up like Ursula from The Little Mermaid. Jacqueline Piccolino led a fine pack of ladies, and the boys in this production are cis, and warbled prettily. Chong Wang and Anthony Reed delivered the armored man duet authoritatively. It may be telling that I nearly forgot to mention Alfred Reiter, a handsome voice without a lot of presence, especially at the depths of the role of Sarastro where basses traditionally show their mettle.

The Magic Flute runs through November 20. Drinking at intermission makes the whole “pa-pa-pa” thing go by faster.

Photos ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera