Charming, but not magic

Good is supposed to win out over evil in Mozart's fairy-tale opera The Magic Flute, but the wicked Queen of the Night triumphs as the finest voice in Michigan Opera Theatre's production at the Detroit Opera House.

The performance is a mixed bag, but let's dispense with the good news first. Soprano Elizabeth Carter, who has sung the enraged Queen at the Met and other major opera houses, has made this role her signature. The Queen of the Night sings just a couple of arias, but they're two of the most cruelly difficult in all of opera. Her florid first-act aria is taxing enough, but the second-act aria of vengeance is a killer. Twice the singer must rap out a machine-gun volley of staccato high C's and then leap up to a pair of Himalayan high F's. Most Queens sing the role like automatons, content just to hit the notes, but Carter colors her interpretation with menacing wrath, the way Edda Moser did in her prime. In last Saturday's opener, Carter ripped into her music with hell-bent fury and pinpoint musical accuracy. This kind of evil is good.

Also commendable are the whimsical sets by children's illustrator Maurice Sendak. His fey backdrops are lush in tropical foliage, with a few fantastic creatures thrown in for good measure. And you can't help liking the pastel-washed hot-air balloon that transports some of the cast members around. It even has Mozart's portrait painted on it.

Kevin Bell's portrayal of the High Priest Sorastro lacks devotional passion, but the torte-like richness of his orotund bass is attractive. Bell is an imposing presence, but his deepest notes were sometimes labored.

As the ditsy bird catcher Papageno, Jeff Morrissey (who replaces the indisposed Frank Hernandez for the run of the opera) overdoes his slapstick shtick, but director Dorothy Danner should share in the discredit for that. Still, Morrissey's lyric baritone is a pleasant instrument and no one can claim he's a stiff actor.

As Pamina, Theresa Santiago projects heartfelt despair in her second-act aria, and her pianissimo notes are lovely, but as a character, Pamina is drab. One would like to hear Santiago in a meatier role.

Even blander is her sweetheart, Tamino, whose character is also unbelievable. Here's a milksop who faints at the sight of a serpent in the opening minutes, yet is assigned to rescue the kidnapped Pamina and undergo a series of endurance tests to enter Sorastro's religious brotherhood. Because he's lackluster, Tamino has to win us over with his voice. But Joseph Wolverton isn't up to snuff. His light tenor is the right weight for the role, but his top register is constricted, resulting in thin, pinched bleats.

Conductor Klaus Donath takes the overture at such a fast clip that it's robbed of its stately nobility. He underscores the pianissimo and forte contrasts admirably, but the accents are oddly weak.

And why is the opera done in English, when the whole purpose of surtitles is to project the translation? Andrew Porter's English translation of the German is irritatingly stilted and does little to enhance understanding of the text.

Overall, this Flute has its charms, but it lacks magic. George Bulanda frequently writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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