San Diego Opera Revives the Zandra Rhodes “Magic Flute”

Until San Diego Opera’s current revival of the “Zandra Rhodes” Magic Flute, the recent production of Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt looked like a clear winner in any imaginary 2006 Best of Five sweepstakes competition. The Barber of Seville arrived somewhat impaired by a lackluster Rosina (as far as her singing of the showpiece aria was concerned); the Lucia di Lammermoor offered us a look at an extremely promising young diva on the way up, but not yet at the top; and the Carmen, with that crazy quilt of visual styles designed by Michael Yeargan and directed by Mark Lamos, could have used a Don José who sang on pitch. Yet, while all three of these operas received highly respectable productions, it was the Julius Caesar that really blew you away. Now this Flute revival comes close to doing the same thing.

The Electric-Pink-Haired Lady’s costumes for Mozart’s The Magic Flute are part of local legend by now: Zandra Rhodes is almost a household word. The names of Michael Hampe (the show’s director), Alberto Andreis (Hampe’s collaborator on the scenic design), Jonathan Martin (the projection designer), Steven W. Bryant (wig and makeup designer), and Marie Barrett (the lighting designer), are surely less well known, but they are no less important when it comes to the success of this show. Everything seems to click, now – much, much more than when the production was first unveiled in 2001.

For anyone who has seen a great number of Magic Flute productions, the Rhodes show is many ways one of the least fussy and most attractive around. Although the costuming concept strikes out, somewhat, by turning Sarastro and his priestly crew into a comically coiffed cult bedecked in black vests topped by sickly yellow robes (that “light/sun versus night/moon thing,” you know), the rest of the costumes – and the production in general – seem to capture just the right degree of wild fantasy and restrained elegance: the star-studded panels that dominate much of the visual impression, the beautiful flying silver orb that carries the three spirits, the Queen of the Night’s stage-encompassing cape, the three handsome portals to Sarastro’s realm, and the charming forest animals (both too much and just enough), the lovely costumes for Tamino and Pamina, the grotesque “blue” Monostatos and his exotically costumed slaves, the three ladies and their veiled crescent-moon hairdos. All of this is so well lighted, so well coordinated as to make for a highly satisfying experience. True, a Papageno who does not look like a souvenir-shop papier-mâché rooster would be nice, but many people find him hard to take in any costume. He’s always trying to be so cute.

Yes, Papageno is a bird – or a bird catcher – or something. But Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, intended Papageno to represent the common man. Papagena is the common woman. Like common people, they want to eat, drink and have children. They sing music that might be sung by German or Austrian peasants. They certainly do not want to act in the high-minded fashion of the Masons. That’s left up to Tamino and Pamina, the ones worthy of undertaking Sarastro’s initiation ceremonies. Meanwhile, just because she’s a woman (The Magic Flute is a sexist as it gets!), the Queen of the Night is running around trying to screw things up – and when she gets really angry, she sings nothing but vowels. She sings them spectacularly, of course, but it’s just all empty-headed female nonsense. She goes to hell at the end. Women could not be Masons – but they might marry a very nice one if they behaved.

The opera is also racist. Monostatos is a black man in the original text, so Rhodes and company do us all a service by turning him blue. He gets a “just punishment” – lashes on his feet — but he goes to hell too (or wherever you go when the stage trap opens and swallows you up.). Shameful, though of its time.

For Mozart, then, the world operates on four different levels (1) The Noble and the Sublime: Sarastro and his Masonic sun cult; (2) The Worthy Aspirants to Higher Knowledge: Tamino and Pamina; (3) The Common Man: Papageno and his wife and progeny; and (4) the Sub-Human and Demonic: Monostatos and fellow slaves. And he writes music that flawlessly suits these four different levels. And Sarastro’s music is sublime – which is one reason he shouldn’t look so much like boxing promoter Don King with his haired dyed lemon yellow.

No, the opera is not PC. But in its very original way, it touches you at the heart. The particulars hardly matter. It’s the search for truth, beauty and goodness that really matters. Frankly, many minorities (non-heterosexuals, for instance), are excluded from the cosmic view. One must make mental adjustments. Or — not!

Poor Sarastro, Polish basso Daniel Borowski. He was the weakest link in an extra-strong cast. Looking lovely on stage, German soprano Ute Selbig was a powerhouse Pamina, obviously restraining a larger sound in “Ach, Ich Fuhl’s.” Truly a man with a golden voice, German tenor Rainer Trost was the most interesting, aggressive Tamino to come along in years, just great in “Dies Bildnis ist Bezaubernd Schon.” Charming without being too annoying, Austrian baritone Paul Armin Edelmann was an excellent Papageno (“Der Vogelfanger bin Ich Ja” and all that jazz), and he was matched with a charming Papagena in Canadian soprano Siphiwe McKenzie. Getting all those passages right that elude some lighter singers, American soprano Cheryl Evans showed there is more than just coloratura to the Queen of the Night. Both numbers (“O Zitt’re Nicht, Mein Lieber Sohn!” and “Der Holle Rache Kocht in Meinen Herzen”) were impressive quite beyond the fancy high vocal fireworks. Oh, that Borowski could have brought off the God-like passages: “O Isis und Osiris,” and “In Diesen Heil’gen Hallen.” German bass Reinhard Dorn, terrific as the Speaker and First Priest, should have had the assignment.

To make a long matter short – kudos to the rest of the cast and the superlative chorus led by Timothy Todd Simmons. And San Diego Symphony! Thanks to 52 or so of you. Under the direction of Christof Perick, you gave us an evening of Mozart to remember.

Remaining performances: Friday, May 12, 2006, 8pm
Sunday, May 14, 2006, 2pm
Wednesday, May 17, 2006, 7pm
Pamina / Ute Selbig
Queen of the Night /Cheryl Evans
Tamino /Rainer Trost
Papageno / Paul Armin Edelmann
Papagena / Siphiwe McKenzie
Sarastro / Daniel Borowski
Speaker / Reinhard Dorn
Monostatos / Martin Zysset
First Lady / Barbara Divis
Second Lady / Priti Gandhi
Third Lady / Lisa Agazzi
Conductor/ Christof Perick
Director / Michael Hampe
Sets and costumes / Zandra Rhodes

Leave a Comment