Madison Opera’s “Flute” Finds Plenty of Vocal Magic

Mozart’s late hybrid stage work proves a hit Friday night


Okay, let’s get this out of the way right now: Yours truly is not the optimal critic for a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I didn’t fall under its spell when I first heard it about 45 years ago, and no version since, recorded, live or on video has managed to woo me either. Mozart pieced this odd work together in the final months of his life, and it is an uneasy mixture of popular entertainment of his day, a la singspiel, with spoken dialogue, and a fairy-tale story overflowing with nonsense (intentional and otherwise) that Mozart overlaid with heavy-handed symbolism of the Freemasonry movement (of which he was a member).

But there is an axiom in the world of opera that the most compelling story cannot redeem mediocre music—and the reverse is true: The most sublime music will find a way to get heard, no matter how unwieldy the plot. And Mozart knew how to do more than write the occasional hit tune…

So let’s move on to the real news: Madison Opera is closing its mainstage productions of the season with The Magic Flute this weekend, a full house in Overture Hall Friday night laughed in all the right places, and cheered with extended enthusiasm for the many singers, new and returning, who had given them an evening that occasionally bordered on vocal opulence.

The whole affair takes place in some “mythical land between the sun and moon,” and the crux of the matter is a young prince, Tamino, passing through the supposed life-threatening terrors to prove his worth in uniting with Pamina (the opening of Act 1 is shown above, courtesy of Arizona Opera). She is the daughter of the seriously feuding Sarastro, who oversees the temple, and the Queen of the Night. The other principal character is the quirky bird-man, Papageno, who is on a seemingly endless search for his suitable female companion. There are plenty of extras to go around: Three Ladies, Three Spirits, assorted temple attendants, et al. The sets, costumes, props and projections all came via Arizona Opera, and Dan Rigazzi, in his local debut, had a field day directing the action.

There were in the end several reasons that I was glad to have been there Friday night, and the first was to hear the company debuts of Andrew Bidlack as Tamino and Amanda Woodbury as Pamina. General director Kathryn Smith and artistic director John DeMain often manage to secure singers who are on the cusp of major careers, about to appear at venues such as Lyric Opera of Chicago or the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In this case, both Bidlack and Woodbury have already been on the Met’s stage, and it was easy to hear why. Bidlack immediately projected a secure, unforced tenor voice, and Woodbury brought equal parts vocal polish and interpretive maturity. Each time they sang together, we were reminded again what wonderful physical and musical chemistry was at work between them. Woodbury’s Act 2 aria, when she is bewildered by Tamino’s refusal to speak to her (part of his initiation was a vow of silence), was a model of poignantly expressive phrasing.

Many fans are well aware of the two major arias for the Queen of the Night, the second of which stubbornly repeats notes above high C, and Caitlin Cisler returned to take on the challenge. She has delighted Madison Opera audiences in The Daughter of the Regiment and A Masked Ball, and her strong effort Friday night was evidence that her development is continuing apace. Her Act 2 aria was a near bullseye.

Nathan Stark was also a returnee in the occasionally thankless role of Sarastro. This is on Mozart, no Stark: it seems that every time the work begins to gather some momentum, Sarastro pops up and it grinds to a halt. His music is so oppressively somber that he’s practically a buzz-kill. But…then a phrase unfolds that is so noble, dripping with dignity, that only Mozart could have penned it. Stark brought some beautifully connected lines to this music, but struggled a tad with the lowest notes (and he’s not the first to have that problem, either).

Alan Dunbar is another local favorite who increased his fan base with a mostly funny Papageno (his humor mostly lies in the extensive spoken dialogue), that resisted being over the top. Musically secure, Dunbar proved excellent in the late duet with his Papagena—and there was a great touch with lots of little supernumeraries trotting out as the couple sang of their future life filled with children. Anna Polum, a product of the Madison Opera Studio, was the happy match for Dunbar.

Another great touch was using three youngsters from the Madison Youth Choirs as the Three Spirits (a new trio will be heard Sunday): Ethan Staver, Dylan Juni and Aberdeen Kurka handled the tight harmonies beautifully, and seemed quite natural in their various comings and goings (usually on some sort of scooters).

As DeMain’s Turandot duties overlapped the opening of Flute rehearsals, we were treated to the return of Gary Thor Wedow in the pit, leading a sizable number (about 40 or so) members of the Madison Symphony. From the opening E-flat major chords, the group gave us their usual blended sonorities with richness and clarity.

The singing is in German with the usual surtitles projected above, while the dialogue is in English (and most of it heard clearly). So there’s plenty to like here…even for a guy who’s not a big fan of the work. And for those others who attended Friday night, they found even more to shout about. Catching the final performance is a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon, even on a pretty spring day.

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