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Baltimore Symphony presents lively concert version of 'The Magic Flute'

There is some risk involved when orchestras present opera in a concert format. They've got to keep the operatically inclined portion of the audience from feeling short-changed by the lack of scenery and costumes, but they also have to keep the operatically-averse portion of the same audience from feeling threatened or bored.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra strikes a pretty neat balance with its semi-staged version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," which has generated strong interest at the box office. (Final performances are Saturday and Sunday.)

It helps, of course, that this is a very popular opera by a very popular composer. By the same token, such familiar fare still needs some freshness, even when performed concert-style. There's a good deal of flair in the BSO's version, which features engaging, vocally reliable singers, a few props and atmospheric lighting.

This is no stand-and-sing affair, but includes lots of effective stage business (bits involving rope are particularly amusing), directed by Michael Ehrman, a veteran of many a staged opera production.

A key asset in this venture is

BSO music director Marin Alsop. On Thursday night at Strathmore, she conducted the nearly complete score with admirable attention to contour and nuance.

It wasn't necessarily the most individualistic take on the music, but Alsop's tempos always felt right and her phrasing had a consistently communicative quality. She can always be counted on to offer the big view of a work, to take in the overall architecture; here she ensured that the organizational solidity, not just the incredible melodic invention, of the opera registered beautifully.

The cast contained the sort of talent that would be encountered in fully staged productions at some very respectable opera houses today. Jonathan Boyd, as Tamino, sang with a good deal of tonal warmth (some strained top notes aside), not to mention eloquence of line and sensitivity to dynamic shading. Emily Albrink was an endearing Pamina. Occasional edginess in the singing was easily forgotten amid all the expressive richness and charm.

Stepping into the role of Papageno on short notice, Daniel Cilli proved to be a very amiable actor and vocalist. If his baritone seemed a little underpowered, the subtle beauty of his tone and his lieder singer-like phrasing came through handsomely. Danielle Talamantes chirped sweetly in her brief appearance as Papagena.

Morris Robinson poured out mighty bass sounds as Sarastro. More gradations of volume would have added to the impact, but it was hard to argue with the sheer nobility of the singing. Mari Moriya negotiated the treacherous vocal domain of the Queen of the Night's arias in intrepid fashion. Peter Burroughs had a mostly persuasive romp as Monostatos.

Members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program helped round out the presentation stylishly -- Jegjung Yang, Sarah Mesko and Cynthia Hanna as the Three Ladies; Aleksey Bogdanov and Jeffrey Gwaltney as the Armed Men. (UPDATE 2/28: A cast change made late in the game and not passed on to the press or the public Thursday night led to an incorrect name among the Three Ladies in my original review.) 

There were sweet sounds from Danielle Buonaiuto, Elizabeth Merrill and Julianne McCarthy as the Three Spirits.The Baltimore Choral Arts Society did vibrant work and, with few exceptions, produced a finely graded blend.

The orchestra seemed to relish the opportunity to dig into this much Mozart at one sitting (the running time of just under three hours, with one intermission). There was graceful playing from the strings, a good deal of warmth from the woodwinds and brass.

The opera's original spoken dialogue is omitted in favor of periodic narration -- delivered with flair by veteran actor Tony Tsendeas, who also gets into the act here and there -- but the script seems rather redundant most of time. No matter. All things considered, this version of "Magic Flute" produces more than a little magic of its own.

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