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OPERA REVIEW
The Magic Flute / Saturday, June 11, 2016

Jacob Thompson and Morgan Harrington in Mozart's Magic Flute

FROTHY FROLICKING AT CINNABAR'S MAGICAL FLUTE

by Terry McNeill
Saturday, June 11, 2016

Though having just two acts, Mozart’s Opera “The Magic Flute” encompasses a jumbled fairy tale plot with complicated staging and myriad performers in demanding vocal roles. Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater took up the arduous challenge of this 1791 work, among Mozart’s last, in a series of performances that opened on the June 10 weekend.

Even with intricate staging, an opera’s success usually rides on achieving a glorious performance of the score and vocal lines, and here Mozart’s composition was surely glorious, as conductor Mary Chun drew from a 12-musican orchestra placed stage right a warmly nuanced reading that never covered the singers. In fact, the singing, in an English translation by Ross Halper, was crystal clear in the intimate 115-seat theater with zero reverberation. Ms. Chun’s tempos were judicious all evening and she sculpted precise attacks and releases. The musical phrases were always supple.

Cinnabar’s annual opera is invariably extravagantly staged and this “Flute” production was no exception. Though using only one set, the wide stage was brilliantly alive with a kaleidoscopic-lit back wall and touches of bright blue and yellow lights (from designer Wayne Hovey) and Lisa Claybaugh’s period costumes fit the actors perfectly. Stage Designer Sharlyn Klein and Stage Director Elly Lichenstein fashioned a theatrical romp that paid homage to the Beatles and had copious references to 1960’s clichés and jargon. The premise for this “magical mystery tour” is the convoluted plot (originally in Egypt) that leads a pro-forma opera
hero (Tamino) and a slapstick bird catcher (Papageno) on a quest for romantic satisfaction, with many false starts, physical trials and comedic predicaments.

This lavish mounting of an opera of exceptional fantasy may not have been to everyone’s taste, as vaudeville and inane humor can easily move attention from the radiant music and slide into absurdity. But the full-house audience Saturday night loved the showy histrionics and the playoff of Las Vegas-style costumes and dance (the three ladies) with the commanding and august personage of Sarastro (bass Richard Mix) and his dutiful and stoic priests.

Well, how was the singing in this hybrid drama (“Singspiel”) that combined spoken words and snippets of arias? On the whole it was convincing and meshed well with the stage action. Tenor Jacob Thompson (Tamino) and Soprano Morgan Harrington (Princess Pamina) had the most lengthy roles, and Mr. Thompson sang with a healthy if never really lyrical voice, and Ms. Harrington’s light spinto voice had ardent charm. Both were often upstaged by the antics of Eugene Walden’s portrayal of the witless but determined Papageno, whose athleticism and clowning stole several scenes from the adjacent royalty and even the menacing Dana Pundt as Queen of the Night.

Ms. Pundt sang the flowing black-dressed Queen's famous Act II aria (Der Hölle Rache)) with the requisite power and Julia Hathaway’s bouncy interpretation of Papagena brought an equally lively response from her not-now-reluctant suitor Papageno. Their boisterous solos (Papageno's “Papagena! Papagena! Papagena!” and the “Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Papagena!” duet) were highlights of the drama. All the frolicking came to an end with the demise of insidious Queen and her acolytes, and Mr. Mix pronouncing a stentorian blessing on the assemblage.

If a scintillating mixture of farcical stage theatrics and meticulously crafted classical-era music is attractive, and it should be, Cinnabar’s new production cannot be missed.

Additional performances, with some cast changes, are set for June 17 (8 p.m.), June 18 (8), June 19 (2), June 24 (8), June 25 (8) and June 26 (2)