Mozart's 'Magic Flute': a fairy tale for grownups

Seattle Opera's production tries to be true to the whimsy and the nobility of Mozart's unstable compound of an opera. It almost works.

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Tamino with his menagerie in "Flute"

Seattle Opera's production tries to be true to the whimsy and the nobility of Mozart's unstable compound of an opera. It almost works.

Mozart's final opera, "The Magic Flute," is both a fairy tale (supposedly for children) and a morality play (supposedly for grownups). In the current production at Seattle Opera, the better part by far is the fairy tale.

"The Magic Flute" is often described as an ideal first opera for newbies because some of its characters are goofy and childlike. But kids today, growing up with Big Bird, Elmo, and Kermit, may not be impressed by a man in a bird suit playing a tune on the glockenspiel. It's the grownups who are, because the costumes are dazzling.

The British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes created them for a 2001 production by San Diego Opera, and updated them for the current Seattle version. The hero and heroine have the least interesting outfits (your basic light blue tunics), while the villains get deep purple tops and striped pantaloons. The stately good guys (and ladies) wear golden vestments that look like Flash Gordon firefighter slickers.

Rhodes's cloak for the Queen of the Night is all dazzling blue and black and silver, while the three guiding spirits, in metallic, mid-thigh spandex, look like they're about to head onto the football field for Friday Night Lights. The most endearing are her costumes for Papageno and Papagena, who get to wear bird suits with beaks and tail feathers.

And then there are the captivating animals: a fearsome Chinese dragon that wheezes its last within the first minute (it causes the hero to faint dead away before it's dispatched by the Ladies of the Night). A little later, though, a whole menagerie of beasts appears: a day-glo pink emu among an assortment of fantasmagorical birds, along with a crocodile, a rhino, and tumbling monkeys.

The cuddly beasts make their appearance as Tamino blows a couple of test-toots on the magic flute he's been given by the manipulative Queen. Her role is sung, in the Gold cast, with great verve and clarity by coloratura soprano Emily Hindrichs, who has the vocal skills, if not the physical stature, of a menacing madwoman. On the other hand, the Russian bass (and former professional basketball player) Ilya Bannik towers over the cast as Sarastro, but doesn't have quite the resonance to be convincing as the voice of wisdom. It falls to baritone Philip Cutlip (Enrico in last year's “Lucia di Lammermoor”) to provide the best singing of the night as the bird-catcher Papageno. It's the part the librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, wrote for himself, and it's got the easiest music and the best bits of schtick as well.

From the pit, Gary Thor Wedow kept track of singers, players, and technical effects ("Das Glockenspiel ist kaput!") with great musical aplomb, and for this production he inserted a few lines from a newly discovered libretto. But I was disappointed that one line, in particular, was excised. There's an exchange between Papageno and the wicked jailer, Monastatos, in Act One, when they first see one other, and each assumes the other is the devil incarnate. Papageno hasn't ever seen a black person, but soon reconsiders: "Es gibt ja schwarze Vogel in der Welt, warum denn nicht auch schwarze Menschen?" ("There are black birds in the world, why shouldn't there be black people as well?")

It's a defining moment for the dim-witted birdcatcher, an important step in his own spiritual development. After all, why should Tamino and Sarastro get all the benefit from the Temple of Wisdom's (read "Masonic") humanism? (“In these hallowed halls, one forgives one's enemies.”) Papageno, the opera's Everyman, deserves enlightenment as much as the vapid Tamino. And vapid he is. Despite John Tessier's best vocal efforts, he's the weakest character onstage, out-acted by the baritone, outclassed by the bass, outsung by both Pamina and the vengeful Queen, and upstaged by the animals.

The imaginative sets were designed locally by Robert Dahlstrom with Robert Schaub, using inventive sliding panels that keep all the action inside triangular shapes of shifting sizes. Chris Alexander, no stranger to Seattle Opera, was the stage director; he'll be back later this summer for "Porgy and Bess."

Various elements of stagecraft are handled by half a dozen horus-like figures (sometimes acting as guards, sometimes as stagehands). They look rather more like household dogs than godlike falcons, but, hey, Mozart wasn't no Egyptologist, and this historical and geographical mish-mash is where "The Magic Flute" founders.

The opera's primary plot, after all, isn't an animal story but a traditional adventure tale: the handsome young prince, Tamino, and his quest to "rescue" the beautiful princess, Pamina. Her mother, the Queen of the Night, says she's been kidnapped by the "evil" high priest, Sarastro, and sends Tamino to find her. He learns soon enough that Sarastro is, in fact, sincere and honorable, and only wants to save Pamina from her crazy, arrogant mom.

His Temple of Isis and Osiris bears more than a passing resemblance to the Order of Freemasons, and both Tamino and Pamina spend the second half of the opera in a series of rituals that culminate with their official initiation. The solemnity of this procedure, which Mozart presents at face value, and which he underlines with Sarastro's deep intonations, is a reflection of his own membership in one of Vienna's leading Masonic lodges.

The Magic Flute was filmed for television by Ingmar Bergman in 1974, followed by a successful release in theaters. It was also made into a movie in 2006 by Kenneth Branagh, the setting “updated” to World War I in an adaptation by Stephen Fry with breathtaking cinematography by Roger Lanzer. Branagh's version premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006 and sank without a trace (except on YouTube, where nothing ever dies). The quest, in the movie, is neither love nor wisdom, but peace, and the moving prayer "O Isis und Osiris," transposed as "O Spirit of our Fathers," is sung in a battlefield cemetery. This High Seriousness no doubt contributed to its failure at the box office.

In contrast to the eyes-glaze-over earnestness of Tamino's quest, there is Papageno's longing for a wife, which is requited towad the end of the opera when Papagena appears, along with a brood of their six future fledglings. But a stage full of cute-as-a-button kids and cuddly animals, no matter how colorful, aren't enough to make "The Magic Flute" an opera for children. Unless the notion of endless incantations and muffled choruses is meant to prepare them for the sort of operas Richard Wagner would write 50 years later.

Mozart died at the age of 35, the year "Flute" premiered; Wagner, at 35, hadn't even begun his Ring Cycle. One wonders, yet again, what the arc of Mozart's genius would have produced, had he lived longer. Would he have continued to celebrate the values of the Englightenment, as he did with "Flute" and "La Clemenza di Tito," and as Beethoven would in "Fidelio" only 15 years later?

I left McCaw Hall full of admiration for the production, yet frustrated by Mozart himself. On the one hand, there was some of his most delightful music, along with some of his most memorable characters. On the other hand, some of his most noble sentiments. The combination, while delightful, was not entirely convincing.

If you go: Seattle Opera presents Mozart's "The Magic Flute" through May 21st. (Performances May 11, 13, 14, 15, 20, and 21). Tickets ($25 to $128) online at, or, by phone at 206-389-7676.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).