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May 7, 2016 |
opera_reviews  |
Anthony P. Radford

Review: Portland Opera opens 2016 with a fine Magic Flute

Photo courtesy: Cory Weaver, Portland Opera
One of the most interesting struggles being played out in the regional opera companies across the country is how to stay relevant in an increasingly shifting market. The quest for audiences has led companies in various directions, from commissioning new works, to reviving older ones. So when I looked at the Portland Opera’s 2016 season I did so with interest because here was a regional company deciding to open the 2016 season with an old friend, Mozart’s Magic Flute.

There isn’t much new about the Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland. It’s a mid-century auditorium which seats about 3000. These mid-century civic halls are beautiful and versatile but not friendly to singers and opera in general principally because there are often problems with acoustics. This was the case this night, where dialogue and singing upstage of the proscenium was largely lost. Most of the time stage director Christopher Mattaliano was kind the singers and kept them downstage. The dialogue was mic’ed and for the most part easy to understand. The other danger in these halls is if they are not filled to capacity it can feel cavernous and very dull. Luckily, on this opening night the hall was full and the audience was supportive. It was a hometown crowd rooting for its opera company, for sure.

But the main triumph of this night was the recreation of the Frank Corsaro (production director) and Maurice Sendak’s (design) 1980 Houston Grand Opera production. The original set was destroyed by Hurricane Wilma 11 years ago so Portland Opera restored this 36 year old production with help from the Maurice Sendak Foundation. It was a long and emotional journey to revive this production for company artistic director and stage director Christopher Mattaliano, who calls both Corsaro and Sendak cherished mentors. The set is stunning and a modern masterpiece. I show my bias (and my age) by saying that Sendak’s work illustrated much of my childhood, so rather than feeling like the set design was out of place somehow (as I do when I see “updated” productions) everything about the look and the feel of this production seemed right. The set helped tell the story (as it should) while also making its own statement about style. It has to be seen to be believed and no amount of description here will do.

The lighting at times was very effective. Effects with the moon and scrims were very imaginative. However it was a concern that many characters faces seems to either come in and out of the light, or be completely in the dark, even when they were singing or had lines. This was a persistent problem throughout the night.

John Moore as Papageno stole the show dramatically and musically. He was at times powerful and at others, lyrical. His duet with Pamina was sublime and made me want to hear him sing a night of Schubert lieder. His dialogue was funny and well received, but at times was rushed and unintelligible (not just when he had a mouthful of food).

Tamino was confidently played by Shawn Mathey, and played a great straight man to Papageno’s antics. He possesses a beautiful tenor voice suitable to the role.

The Queen of the Night played by Canadian Soprano Aline Kutan was an audience favorite and received the loudest and most enthusiastic applause after her aria, which was cut off by a leaping Monostatos (Marcus Shelton) bounding on stage. I am not sure if he was instructed to cut her applause (because the night did run 3 hours and 15 minutes) but I know the proverbial daggers would be out in many casts. Marcus would have no doubt escaped any of the sopranos wrath as he was an excellent Monostatos, and commanded the stage. Back to Kutan, my main concern was weakness in her lower middle voice which made much of her words muddy. Katrina Galka as Pamina was cute as a button and perfect has Pamina and Tom McNichols was a commanding Sarastro.

The orchestra was excellent while conductor George Manahan choices at times, baffled me. He failed to take real advantages of the contrasts Mozart provides in the overture. Too often it seemed like the orchestra was being waved through important sections like a traffic cop gesturing drivers past an accident scene. Then there were the odd ritardandos at the end of Papageno and Tamino first act aria’s. The ritardando at the end of Der Vogelfänger is fine, but to do the same for Dies Bildnis can be vocally deadly for the tenor. I was almost riotous when he did the same to Pamina (Maureen McKay) in Ach ich fühls, stretching out the end of every cadence.There is traditionally some slowing as she ascends up to the staccati b flat at the first cadence but the pace should quickly return as she finishes her stanza. In the second the approach into the fermata should be a tempo. Mozart is our best voice teacher, and if we ignore his tempos (marked or unmarked--which brings up another musicological batter) we do so at the singers peril. Again, I am not sure where this comes from but it sounds wrong to my ear. McKay for her part had a brilliant clear voice, but as mentioned, it is tempting to allow the soprano to shine in her aria with Puccini-esque rubato and ritardandos, but should not be applied to Mozart. Call me a purist.

Christopher Mattiliano’s staging was excellent save for a few moments. I felt slightly bad for the excellent men’s chorus, staged facing away from the conductor for important cut-offs. But overall his work here is admirable, recreating this set and this production with a fine entertaining and balanced cast. The Portland Opera on this night seemed to be well supported in the community, and a strong, vibrant and well loved company. Go and see this opera if you can. There are three more performances on May 8th at 7:30pm, May 12th at 7:30 and May 14th at 7:30.

Anthony P. Radford
Review Editor, Opera Journal
Associate Professor of Voice,
California State University, Fresno

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Opera Association, its Board, Officers or Membership.

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