In the midst of a season of innovative cultural collaborations and community-wide discussions about increasing arts accessibility, the University of Louisville Opera Theatre concluded its own season with a production of “The Magic Flute” that was as approachable as it was enchanting.
This is no easy feat. Mozart’s operas are notoriously winding, with multi-leveled plots, cases of mistaken identities, and mysterious magical realms. “The Magic Flute” — or “Die Zauberflöte” — in which the German libretto was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, is a perfect example of this.
The opera has such a complex plot that it takes several viewings for even the most studious buffs to sort out the sprawling cast. (It also doesn’t help that the main characters of this story have such similar-sounding names: Tamino, Pamina, Papageno, Papagena.)
According to director Michael Ramach, the keys to translating this production for a contemporary audience were a few simple modifications.
“I decided to update and rework the libretto and focus on a more 21st Century egalitarian world view,” Ramach says. The effect was to deconstruct the original work’s troubling elements of misogyny.
“Also, I wanted to emphasize the magical and fantasy elements in the story,” he says. “Our popular culture today is filled with magic and mystery: The ‘Harry Potter’ series, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Game of Thrones,’ just to name a few. My hope is that it gives this wonderful opera a new vitality without compromising the integrity of the piece.”
The opera opens as the young hero Tamino (Dylon Crain) is being pursued by a dragon. He is rescued by three mysterious ladies (Natasha Lynn Foley, Susan L. Hahn, Krista Hechkmann) who serve the Queen of the Night (guest artist Jessica Dennison).
While the women return to the queen to tell her of the stranger they found, Tamino meets Papageno (Ricky Howsare), the queen’s bird catcher.
Tamino arrives on scene with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead; the three ladies assist Tamino with wands in hand; and we get the sense that The Queen of the Night (or “She who must not be named”) is not as kind as she presents herself based on the way Papageno (our stand-in for Dobby the House Elf) fearfully shakes whenever she is mentioned.
Subtle? Not particularly. Effective? Absolutely.
The ladies return and show Tamino a picture of the queen’s daughter, Pamina, who has been captured by Sarastro, a high priest and enemy of the queen. Tamino falls in love on the spot, and after being encouraged by the Queen of the Night, he and Papageno set out to rescue her — armed with a magic flute, a set of bells, and the promise that both of them will end up with girlfriends if they are successful.
The scene changes to Sarastro’s temple — reminiscent of Hogwarts — where Pamina (the superb Emily Yocum Black) is held captive. She is alone with the lustful Monostatos (Sam Soto), rebuffing his advances. Just then, Papageno — who was sent ahead to scout — wanders in. He and Monostatos are frightened by each other, but eventually it is Monostatos who runs off. Pamina and Papageno head off and are eventually united with Tamino.
During the course of the second act’s nine scenes, Tamino and Pamina endure trial by fire, water and silence. Pamina must refuse her mother’s order to kill her father so the order of the night can be restored. Top it all off with the fact that Pamina is falsely led to believe that Tamino has rejected her — twice — nearly driving her to suicide.
Ramach’s version of the classic opera was based on a framework that was originally translated and rewritten by opera critic and translator Andrew Portman. However, his magical version kept the plot moving, and a talented cast truly engaged the audience.
Particularly, Black’s Pamina was refreshing as she broke the “damsel in distress” precedent set for the character by past productions, and Howsare’s Papageno was punchy, funny and delightfully over-the-top.
Blended with the University of Louisville Sinfonietta, directed by Kimcherie Lloyd, “The Magic Flute” was a spellbinding performance that sets the bar high for future reimagined works by the university program.
Correction: An earlier version of this review said the libretto was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte. It was written by Emanuel Schikaneder.