Rock Me Amadeus

Opera Theatre of St. Louis opens its season with purple serpents and golden hippos

They threw out the first pitch of the opera season Saturday night (it was a B-flat) as Opera Theatre of St. Louis opened its 2002 schedule with a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute. From the extravagant purple serpent to the golden hippo dancing in a sarong, this production was designed to be visually engaging family entertainment. OTSL's talented singers and Mozart's luminous music make for an evening rich in adult pleasures as well.

Mozart wrote The Magic Flute for the theater, not the opera house. It was intended as a crowd-pleaser and moneymaker for the hopelessly broke composer. Mozart's fellow Freemason and drinking buddy Emmanuel Schikaneder lifted the libretto from an old German fairy tale and a contemporary novel. The plot is standard "rescue opera." Sarastro, high priest of the sun, has imprisoned the beautiful princess Pamina. A serpent chases noble Prince Tamino into the realm of Pamina's mother, Queen of the Night. The queen recruits him to rescue Pamina. She shows him a picture of the princess, and Tamino falls in love. During the rescue, Tamino figures out that Sarastro is actually the good guy and the queen has evil intentions. Sarastro puts Tamino through a series of purification rituals and trials, through which he earns Pamina's hand and the high priest's throne.

There's not much for modern actors to work with in this emotionally simplified version of The Magic Flute, so the show must stand on its singing and staging. OTSL's fine cast has a ripping good time putting across Mozart's songs. The vocal highlights belong to the women in this opera. The lovely Ying Huang, fresh from playing the lead in a new movie of Madame Butterfly, sings Pamina with a luxurious, angelic sweetness. As the queen, Regina Zona turns Mozart's long wordless vocal passages into wonderful flights of evil intensity.

Tenor Eric Cutler charms the animals in The Magic Flute.
Tenor Eric Cutler charms the animals in The Magic Flute.
Loretto-Hilton Center

The female trios are highpoints in The Magic Flute. Through them flows some of the composer's trickiest vocal counterpoint. Carolyn Betty, Amy Orsulak and Kristina Martin light up the first act as a threesome of delightfully wicked witches sent by the queen to save Tamino from the serpent. In the second act, Arden Kaywin, Malia Bendi Merad and Leah Wool weave ethereal soprano trios as spirits sent to guide the protagonists through their ordeals.

The best acting in this production comes from Philip Cutlip as Tamino's sidekick, Papageno, a man primarily concerned with filling his belly and finding female companionship. His scenes offer comic relief between the suicidal angst of Pamina and the deadly trials of Tamino. Cutlip's engagingly natural and open baritone style makes his Papageno thoroughly likeable and sympathetic. Cutlip combines with Huang in a series of gorgeous duets that juxtapose their characters' longings for love and safety with Tamino's dangerous search for the higher values of truth, beauty and wisdom.

Eric Cutler, as Tamino, wraps his velvety tenor around each note and caresses the music as the prince is tossed and tried by the travails of his quest. Oren Gradus as Sarastro makes full use of his cushy bass to lend a gentle heft and underlying melancholy to his character. Frank Kelley slithers like a horny snake and sings with hissing amorality as the evil Moor Monostatos. Albert Lee shows great comic timing as a sun priest who becomes Papageno's spiritual equivalent of a personal trainer.

The staging is simplicity itself. There is one basic stage set, which changes only slightly. Those changes happen smoothly, right before our eyes. The play runs through its 30 scenes with nary a single full curtain or blackout. Set designer David Gordon and costume designer Linda Cho had fun with the Masonic images and Egyptian symbolism in script. The three pyramid temples of the basic stage set are home to priests whose costumes are replete with scarabs, ankhs and evil eyes. Pharaonic amulets adorn the armor of the temple guards. At one point, our hero's flute-playing draws jackal-headed dancing hieroglyphs.

As noted, The Magic Flute is OTSL's idea of family fare. I took my ten-year-old son. It was his first opera. I made sure to take him to the preview lecture, which is given an hour before each performance, so he knew what was going on. He's a kid who has trouble sitting through a period of hockey without a trip to the men's room, but outside of some squirming during the mystical mumbo-jumbo that slows down the second act, he enjoyed it.

 
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