By Elizabeth Michelman
Boston, MA – Boston Lyric Opera presents The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart World Premiere, New English Language Adaptation (through October 13).
The Boston Lyric Opera’s Magic Flute, in a new English language adaptation that world-premiered at the Shubert Theater Friday night, reveals the Tao of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart not through words but ultimately through the music itself. This contemporary reworking of Mozart’s final operatic fantasy, in performance through October 13th at the Shubert Theatre, updates the eighteenth-century libretto and resets the action among the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan. Within a mythic conflict of sun and moon, light and dark, order and chaos, four contemporary college students journey inward to find love and greater wisdom.
Despite its brief eclipse at the beginning of the modern period, Mozart’s last and greatest opera is now established as unrivaled. And surely the spiritual significance of passage into adulthood is as relevant today as always. But after putting on numerous productions of the work in the past, BLO’s General and Artistic Director Esther Nelson determined to cast off the racism, misogyny, and historical irrelevancies of Emanuel Schikeneder’s original 18th-century text. The new libretto by Kelley Rourke, Leon Major, and John Conklin discards Eurocentrism and the arcane rituals of Freemasonry for a streamlined statement of the underlying Enlightenment values. “We need,” says Nelson, “to get back to the very basic message, we all have responsibility and our own inner journey to make about what’s right and wrong. It’s important that men AND women think about their paths in life.”
Jettisoning Old-World baggage, the production drops the young students among the aestheticized pyramids and labyrinths of the Mayan jungle, where birds and serpents stalk the land, and demi-gods of light and darkness rule the heavens.
Welcoming innovations as needed in every generation to create, capture, and educate new audiences, conductor David Angus exults: “It’s full opera, with staging…. it’s visual, it’s vocal, it’s everything.” And it’s fidelity to the music, not the language, that lets us call it Mozart. At the risk of stretching to the breaking point one of the most sublime extended moments in the canon of orchestral overtures, the new libretto injects a narrative delay in order to launch the novel setting. It accomplishes this technically without altering a note of the score. Taking advantage of what could be considered Mozart’s own false beginning, the orchestra prolongs a musical pause for an interval of newly invented dialogue, during which the youthful adventurers arrive, gawking, birding, and bickering, at the Mayan archaeological site. Settling on a rock, Tommy/Tamino(Zach Borichevsky) is suddenly bitten by a snake (an embellishment on the original text); his delirium flowers into the fantasy of the next two-and-a-half hours.
Rourke’s twenty-first-century American idiom flows smoothly and sweetly between the fabulous and the contemporary. The original mythic twists are retained and grounded in the universal quest for adulthood. Briefly, Tamino (Zach Borichevsky) is charged by the Queen of the Night (So Young Park) to challenge the tyrant Sarastro (David Cushing) and free her daughter, the imprisoned Pam/Pamina (Deborah Selig). The indigenous birder Papageno (Andrew Garland), also wandering in search of a mate, is ordered by the Queen to help Tamino. Spirit messengers of the Queen (Thomas Potts, Timothy O’Brien, and Andrew Peruzzi, boy singers from the St. Paul Choir School of Cambridge) offer the two men magical bells and a flute to help them in potential crisis.
Tamino rescues his ordained beloved from the clutches of the serpentine Monostatos (Neal Ferreira), Sarastro’s predatory servant, yet the young couple become confused by the adults’ incongruent narratives of good and evil. Torn between incompatible loyalties for mother and father, darkness and light, Pamina and Tamino are flung back and forth in the conflict between the vengeful Queen of the Night, and Sarastro, now revealed as the leader of a pacific brotherhood. Each must confront for themselves the pain of discovering who they are, and the fear of trusting their instinctive paths.
But plot, in the end, is only the servant; Mozart’s musical ingenuity, the compelling master. Apart from a brash opening salvo by the orchestra on opening night, the voices of instruments and singers were deftly balanced. Selig’s melting soprano and Garland’s firm baritone fusing, in a single song of longing, their respective wishes for a soul-mate was an early moment of perfection that continued to expand throughout the performance.
The emerging diadem of the cast, the 27-year-old, Korean-born coloratura So Young Park (plucked from the New England Conservatory prior to graduation for her professional BLO debut) clearly rules the stage as the Queen of the Night. Although she had already sung the part at NEC, Park has developed it for the new circumstances. Pacing and restraining her delivery with blood-chilling timing and control, Park fills the Queen’s presence as if born to the role. Yet for all her consummate star quality, the acting and stagecraft is a group marvel, with Selig, Garland, Borichevsky, and the magnetic Ferreira balletically embodying the dynamics of character and plot. Indeed, the flashing screens of English text flanking the stage become unnecessary distractions from the viewer’s whole-bodied appreciation of the sense of the play.
The many details of visual design are masterfully coordinated, from John Conklin and Mark Stanley’s minimalist set and powerful lighting to Nancy Leary’s painstakingly researched costuming. Throughout the performance, bejeweled silhouettes of bird and serpent hovering in the air signal the subconscious powers of light and darkness. A Mayan pyramid carved with hieroglyphics glows ruddily in the background, to illuminate Sarastro’s realm; in the Queen’s presence, steely discs and lunar crescents slice the heavens. The metallic gowns and immaculate white robing of the royal attendants reflect the set’s complementaries of corals and turquoise, sun-gold and moon-silver, and a range of aqueous and midnight blues. The clash of archaic and street dress both ironizes and intensifies the sense of fantasy.
To underscore the unseen forces, a massive framing device of nested, receding squares shifts and reassembles to advance the tensions of the play. Early on, parallel pillars symmetrically focus the view upstage toward the civilizing balance of the pyramid. As chaos and conflict prevail, the huge squares slide out of alignment into a labyrinth of obstructed zones and vistas, in whose shadows the seekers pace and suffer. When Sarastro’s bass tones bring back the reign of reason, the pillars glide back to their daylit symmetry.
The song from the psychic realm counsels:
“Think with your heart and be moved by your feeling; Let your instinct be guided by reason.”
While even the most perfect language cannot rid itself of opacity, the characters—and, it is hoped, the audience—depart convinced by the music’s own truth.
A final note: Despite the close-to-prohibitive expense of maintaining a professional opera company, the Boston Lyric Opera has continuously mounted ambitious productions for thirty-seven seasons and has committed itself to cultivating a wealth of talent with roots in Boston. Friday’s gala raised more than $635,000 from the Boston audience’s continued patronage, a generosity of critical proportions for a group that is not only supporting four productions but also hoping to finance a new and even more suitable venue than its current home in the Shubert theatre. While this goal to some may appear a dream, to some even a hallucination, it is clear in the 2013-14 season’s brave new Magic Flute that the music, at least, does not waver.
(Black Tie Gala Opening Night was on Friday, October 4, 2013, at 8:00 pm; Show times: Sunday, October 6, 2013, at 3:00 p.m. Wednesday, October 9, 2013, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 11, 2013, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, October 13, 2013, at 3:00 p.m. Location: Citi Center Performing Arts Center, Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit blo.org or call 617-542-4912.)