Infused with fantastical characters, references to Freemasonry and enchanting music, Mozart's The Magic Flute lends itself to far-flung interpretation while embracing audiences of all tastes. You can set the two-act opera on the moon, against a blighted urban landscape or, as is the case with Opera Colorado's enjoyable production, amid fairy-tale settings--and the bewitching story about a young man's journey toward enlightenment will, no matter how ponderously staged, amuse as much as it edifies.
That's especially true when the scenic and costume designer is renowned children's-book illustrator Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). Featuring a cavalcade of Sendak's expressive countenances and florid landscapes, Mozart's final opera, sung here in German with English surtitles, is being presented at the Buell Theatre under the steady baton of conductor Julius Rudel.
Leading the company is coloratura soprano Cyndia Sieden, whose strong portrayal of the Queen of the Night reaches its apotheosis during her Act Two aria "Der HYlle Rache." Displaying perfect pitch and deft placement, Sieden artfully negotiates a treacherous assortment of high notes in one of the most difficult roles in all of opera. Sieden's regal appearance is made all the more effective by her star-studded midnight-blue costume and several special effects that announce the monarch's every arrival.
As her lovelorn daughter, Pamina, Gwendolyn Bradley is a winsome princess whose pleasing soprano nearly makes up for the emotional distance between Bradley and tenor Donald Kaasch, who delivers a satisfactory portrayal of the princely Tamino. Although director Rudel clumsily stages Pamina and Tamino's perilous Act Two journey through the caverns of fire and ice, Bradley and Kaasch deliver a refined duet as they sing, "By the power of music, we walk in joy through the dark night of death." As Pamina's imperious captor, Sarastro, bass Arthur Woodley serves to construct a metaphorical stairway toward heaven, even if his powerful portrayal stops short of rattling the Buell's rafters. He's nicely complemented by tenor Melvin Lowery's nimble if lightweight characterization of Monostatos, the slimy Moorish overseer at Sarastro's temple. Combining wayward charm with impish bravado, baritone Jake Gardner is amusing as Mozart's lovable birdman, Papageno. And Lisa Walecki's bubbly impersonation of his wife, Papagena, injects the yawn-inducing activity near play's end with vitality and charisma.
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The real stars of the show are Sendak's glorious sets, which the eminent artist originally designed for a production of Die ZauberflYte that premiered twenty years ago at Houston Grand Opera. From the moment individual sections of the mammoth scrim are illuminated during the overture, Sendak's mixture of puckish brush strokes and saturated pastels is at once compelling and heartwarming. Whether the painter is depicting a primordial forest, a pyramid-filled desert or the three sanctuaries of Wisdom, Reason and Nature that evoke the opera's Masonic roots (both Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were Masons, members of the all-male secret society devoted to the development of brotherhood and one's spiritual growth), Sendak's trademark elfin figures--with larger-than-life heads, exaggerated facial features and gently stooped postures--are always a delight. The choice to place Tamino's three boyish guides (Steven Mudd, Thomas Parrott and Patrick Withers) in a mobile hot-air balloon is particularly inspired, especially when a miniature version of the ship traverses the theater's back wall just seconds before the life-sized craft carrying the trio of periwigged lads travels across the front of the stage. And in one episode, several costumed animal figures lend a marvelous three-dimensional quality to Sendak's bucolic environment. There's even a backdrop depicting a bust of a smirking Egyptian goddess who flouts this male-dominated world by mischievously grasping her own breast.
Unfortunately, Rudel's staging seems more static than it should be in Sendak's sensual fantasyland, and it sometimes feels more like a forced exercise than an inspired tribute. For instance, rather than invigorating a few musical interludes and group scenes with imaginative, textured behavior, Rudel arranges the priests and lodge brothers in rows of straight lines and marches the choruses on and off in a manner that brings to mind the regimented sterility of an elementary-school choral concert. What's worse, the director frequently elicits wooden, stand-and-sing portrayals that belie each character's underlying vitality. As a result, Rudel's soporific approach occasionally diminishes the effect of Mozart's wondrous music instead of ennobling it. Even so, on the strength of Sendak's incomparable artistry and the performers' game efforts, the production manages to convey the playful and mysterious aspects of Mozart's most beloved opera.
The Magic Flute, presented by Opera Colorado through February 28 (the matinee performance on the 28th is sold out) at the Buell Theatre, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100.