Cher Public

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

  • It’s a brave soul who admits he isn’t a fan of Flute!

    • mercadante

      I’ve never liked it either. It’s always seemed platitudinous and sophomoric, especially compared to the humanity of the three da Ponte operas and Idomeneo. I just find it silly and it drags.

  • Ilka Saro

    “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”

    Isn’t there a German word which means this?

    • Pia Ngere-Liu

      Yes, it is called Schadenfreudegemischtmitweltschmerzwahnsin.

  • armerjacquino

    It is very, very rare for me to disagree with Mr Freed. But with ‘Dies Bildnis’ ‘Ach Ich Fuhls’ and the two QOTN arias we’re surely talking at least four great arias. And the Speaker scene and Bei Mannern and that overture and the ‘Soll Ich Dir Teuer’ trio and and and…

    • Greg.Freed

      I am perhaps willing to admit that this figure is grumpy hyperbole.

      • armerjacquino

        Well, that’s my drag name sorted.

      • divad

        You’re entitled. The more I see them, even the greatest and most divine Mozart operas try my patience, mainly in the way they get presented. I think the brutalizing effect comes in having to experience them in gigantic theaters. They’re all human comedies and tragedies, and they get minimized in spaces equipped for the RING and TURANDOT. What should be deft, profound, disarming -- even in the recitatives and dialogue -- has to be super-sized and italicized to “work.” In the process, it can become obvious, repetitive. And LONG, in spite of sublime qualities in the musical performances. It can turn THE MAGIC FLUTE (or DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE) into a cartoon that moves like a glacier. COSI becomes a three-and-a-half-hour I LOVE LUCY episode. LE NOZZE DI FIGARO looks like a dinner-theater farce that wound up in the wrong place. Not always, of course, but usually. One of the most Mozartean Mozart performances I ever saw was an ABDUCTION in the smaller theater (1100-ish seats) of the then-new opera house in Houston, almost 30 years ago. The production was a charming, clever update (1930s Hollywood), a concept that needed to be fast, sleek and sharp, and it was. The performance flew. A beautifully integrated ensemble of young American singers -- all just fine if not legendary names -- surprised again and again, it seemed to me, because each could breathe, literally and figuratively, and PLAY. No one seemed to have to force anything. Even the (translated) dialogue worked. Mozart has never seemed more genuine to me in the theater.

    • Krunoslav

      I love all of those thing--and especially the quintet for the Three Ladies, Tamino and Papageno-- but for years now I have enjoyed hearing them more at home where I can skip the dialogue and , most times, the choruses ( exquisite as they are in principle).

      Part of it is-- since my teenage years, when my first Papageno was the funny, vocally excellent and very gay-seeming Donald Gramm-- my patience has decreased precipitously with his whole sthick and narrative: straight boy who likes a drop and a pretty face. Even when they’re good-- Keenlyside, Nathan Gunn, Joshua Hopkins-- I can admire that quality without caring a whit about the character.

      I think Pamina may be the only character in the show that can make a production moving.

      • It makes a difference, I suppose, if that drop is painted by Chagall.

  • Tristan_und

    I notice that there’s no reference to the QOTN or her performance. I’m guessing it was unspeakable??

    • manou


      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.

      • rapt

        Surely Bowden deserves an extra nod for being able to spell Shagimuratova….

  • Krunoslav

    Good thing you’ve got a Steuermann, Tristan!

    • manou

      A Steuermanou.

  • bluecabochon

    I didn’t know where this production took place until I read the photo credit at the bottom.

    • Greg.Freed

      I’ve been reviewing at SFO for a year and a half, but I can see how that must have been a tense pair of minutes.

  • First of all, what company are we talking about? There’s no indication in the post. Unless I missed it.

    Off topic, I’m listening to a glorious I Puritani with Lawrence Brownlee and Sara Coburn. First, the A te o cara was stunning. And second, why isn’t she a bigger star? She’s terrific.

    • fletcher

      Sarah Coburn was Zerbinetta in Seattle this spring and was from what I read very good, though I confess I find it hard not to hold her father’s obnoxious politics against her.

    • Donna Anna

      Sarah Coburn has performed many times in my part of the world and she is a favorite here. She told me that if her last name were Russian, she’d be busier than she is.
      She just released a cd “Oh, When I Dream” but I was disappointed that everything sounded the same, especially the songs by Orbradors and Turnia. She’s one delightful lady with a great sense of humor and I wish her material allowed those assets to come through.

      • armerjacquino

        She told me that if her last name were Russian, she’d be busier than she is.

        A delightful racist, then. I guess that explains why Angela Meade and Jamie Barton are so short of work.

        • DerLeiermann

          She is prejudiced , but most definitely not a racist.

          • DonCarloFanatic

            Also apparently suffers from the inability to distinguish a Russian name from a Bulgarian, Romanian, Latvian, Polish, or Georgian name. She’d feel less discriminated against if she could only learn the map of eastern Europe.

  • Porgy Amor

    seemingly aimed at gay eight-year-olds

    • Henry Holland

      “I love the sewing machine!!!”.

    • DerLeiermann

      HAHAHHA this is hilarious!

      “GET A LIFE, JEWS!!”

    • pasavant

      Thank you for posting this. I laughed so hard that my neighbors must think I’ve gone screwy. Made my day. Have been trying in vain to sell my ticket for Tannhauser, but everyoneI know has by now found out about Westbroek’s “singing”.

  • The person in polka-dots could be Françoise Pollet.

    • Gualtier M

      I think that is Greg Fedderly as Monostatos -- this is what he looked like in 1995 as Tom Rakewell with Barbara Hendricks:

      No mistaking him for Francoise Pollet there…

      Overture with lots of photos from the SFO production premiere with Shrader et al.

      Francoise Pollet who didn’t impress me live at the Met but who I love on recordings in Gounod’s “Cinq-Mars”:

  • DerLeiermann

  • quoth the maven

    Until earlier this year, I would have definitely joined Mr. Freed in ranking Zauberflöte a drag--my least favorite standard-rep opera, save Turandot. But a close listen to the Klemperer/EMI recording has changed my mind. It really is beautiful: if properly played and sung, the sound-world it inhabits isn’t quite like any other opera.

    But I will say it is usually execrably staged. Directors and impresarios (on this side of the pond especially, I think) want to pretend that it is nothing but wall-to-wall whimsical fun, and they lay on the cuteness with a trowel. Yeah, whimsy is built into certain moments, like the magic bells dance, but most of the piece won’t sustain it. Even if it could, 3-plus hours of cute is a lethal dose of cute. Meanwhile, it’s criminal to subject children to this thing, and pretend it will hold their interest like Teletubbies or Ninja Warriors (yes, outdated references. My nieces and nephews have grown up, so I have no idea what delights the under-10 set these days. Probably Internet porn).

    • armerjacquino

      FROZEN. Endlessly.

    • Cicciabella

      And “Everything is awesome” from The LEGO Movie. Magic Flute can’t compete.

  • My problem with Zauberflöte isn’t the music which is mostly typically divine, but the drama. The opera is a delight until we get to the temple. Then, the grave pomposity takes over. I couldn’t care less about their rituals. And all those trials (will Papageno please shut the f&*ck up so we can move on to the next one?) are the definition of tedium for me. When it comes to Mozart’s singspiels, give Entführing any day.

    • Entführu</bLng!

      • Oh, never mind!

        • Porgy Amor

          Just call it Abduction. A time-honored workaround. ;-)

          I love the Flute, but (this will be controversial) I’ve never enjoyed it more on the dramatic level than I did when watching the Bergman film. He took some liberties to bring it more in line with his own oeuvre, but they worked. And even the most solemn and static temple scene when shot by Sven Nykvist was so beautiful.

          • Porgy: But I love to take any opportunity to pretentiously use umlauts! Bergman’s film is still, regrettably, on my to-do list.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Magic Flute was the first opera I ever heard on CD, the first I ever saw, and Sarastro was my first proper role in anything, so I have a lot of special affection for the piece. In fact, Sarasatro’s arias were the first I ever learned and performed after my voice broke in my mid-teens.

    I agree it isn’t always much fun to sit through in the theatre, but I have seen 1 great performance of the McVicar production at the ROH with Roschmann as an extraordinary Pamina, a real stand out role assumption out of everything I’ve ever seen.

    • Greg.Freed

      Yeah, what’s Roschmann up to these days? She’s one of my favorite voices but it’s my understanding she had to retool her rep due to an unreliable top few notes. I guess I could check operabase, and indeed it looks like she’s doing a lot of Elvira and Contessa Almaviva, but with some interesting stuff coming up: Jenufa and Desdemona!