Ravinia’s “Magic Flute” proves a musical triumph

Fri Aug 17, 2012 at 1:51 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Ailyn Perez and Nathan Gunn in “The Magic Flute,” presented Thursday night at Ravinia. Photo: Russell Jenkins/Ravinia Festival

The Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is looking back to its roots this weekend. The North Shore suburban arts festival was known as Ravinia Opera a century ago and is currently presenting semi-staged concert performances of two Mozart operas each in evening and matinee performances.

The first of these, The Magic Flute, opened Thursday night in the intimate Martin Theatre, a venue far closer in size than Mozart would have known than the gargantuan Civic Opera House that is home to Lyric Opera.

The work began unexpectedly with narrator John de Lancie explaining the plot and purpose of the opera in a few truculent lines. Following that, the overture was given a buoyant performance by James Conlon and his chamber orchestra, who were placed onstage all in black, with blue lighting behind them that occasionally shifted to bronze.

Tenor René Barbera as Tamino (replacing the ailing, previously announced Charles Castronovo who performed the role at Lyric last season) made his entrance in a tuxedo chased by an imaginary dragon that is intercepted by the Three Ladies—Janai Brugger, Lauren McNeese and Ronnita Miller—all in colorful ball gowns and blending luxuriously.

Without any of the opera’s spoken dialogue, we are introduced to baritone Nathan Gunn’s Papageno from the back of the theater, with a whiff of Jimmy Buffett about him—sporting net, birdcage, a blue Hawaiian shirt, and backwards Cubs cap with a couple of feathers peeking out.

Despite its glorious music, the libretto and dialogue of Magic Flute can often come across as serviceable but perfunctory, especially compared to the other stellar Da Ponte/Mozart operatic collaborations. Still, gutted of that component—and here replaced with fitful Reader’s Digest-like summations with the characters onstage in pantomime—shows how central the spoken portions are to the character and plot development of the opera.

Papageno suddenly appears with a padlock on his mouth, for instance, without our experiencing his boastful outburst taking credit for saving Tamino. We also never directly experience the meeting of Tamino and Pamina nor Papageno and Papagena. We missed out on the woeful priestly admonitions, the actual encounters and struggles of the trials and the Queen of the Night has no cross warnings for her daughter apart from those actually sung, which come across as jarring without a fuller dramatic context. Most vacuously, when the entire scene wherein Tamino is forced to ignore his beloved Pamino as the last of his trials and the sorrowful reaction that sets up her aria Ach, ich fühl’s is left on the cutting room floor, that key music—beautifully rendered though it was by Ailyn Pérez—has far less dramatic impact.

Nonetheless, the musical portions were consistently excellent: Barbera was in splendid vocal form bringing transparency and lyricism to the role of Tamino, and Pérez gave Pamina an immense amount of three-dimensionality that was reflected in her vocalism. Nathan Gunn was comic and tender as Papageno.

Bass Morris Robinson makes a stunning Sarastro, dipping down into the role’s low notes with silky smooth aplomb. Hungarian soprano Erika Miklósa delivered her Act II Der Hölle Rache with such fiery precision and confidence that she stopped the show.

Local boy sopranos Henry Griffin, Nicholas Edwards-Levin and boy alto Liam Gannon blended splendidly as the Three Boys and most luxuriously, given its absence from recent past Ravinia opera productions, a chamber choir from the Chicago Symphony Chorus prepared by Cheryl Frazes Hill added immense texture to its key scenes.

The chamber orchestra of CSO players played with aplomb and great attention to sonic detail despite missing several principals, most notably principal flutist Mathieu Dufour. The key flute lines were nonetheless delivered distinguishedly by assistant principal Richard Graef.

Mary Sauer, now the longest-serving principal in the CSO having been hired by Fritz Reiner in 1957, played the glockenspiel part and was even delightfully brought into the action by Papagano while doing so.

Conlon’s skills as a Mozartean are well known here, his not only having presented a multi-year cycle of Mozart Piano Concertos but now several Mozart operas at Ravinia as well. He skillfully balanced charm and dramatic tension in this music, some of the last and finest that Mozart wrote.

The Magic Flute repeats at 1 p.m. Saturday. Mozart’s Idomeneo will be performed 7 p.m. tonight and 1 p.m. Sunday. ravinia.org; (847) 266-5000; 

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Ravinia’s “Magic Flute” proves a musical triumph”

  1. Posted Aug 22, 2012 at 4:10 pm by Beata

    Mary Sauer played the celeste in The Magic Flute. The celeste is a keyboard instrument. The glockenspiel is a mallet instrument. Thank you.

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