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Opera Vivente puts Baltimore spin on 'The Magic Flute'

Opera Vivente puts Baltimore spin on 'The Magic Flute'

Given that we don't have a surfeit of great singers these days, it's no wonder that stage directors have moved into the forefront of the opera world, as in no other time during the history of the art form. This means, of course, a whole lot of concepts floating around.

Directors routinely put their emphatic stamps on standard and contemporary operas alike, a process that can generate wonderful results, with fresh insights enhancing the experience for performers and audiences. Things can also get a little messy, too, needless to say. You'll recall the rampant booing on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera this season for Luc Bondy's unconventional take on "Tosca"; that kept the blogosphere sizzling for weeks. In 2003, Yuri Temirkanov walked out on a production of "Queen of Spades" he was to have conducted at Opera National de Lyon in France when he felt a stage director had gone too far afield. Last week, Carl St. Clair handed in his resignation at the Komische Oper in Berlin after being forced to conduct a literally trashy staging of "Fidelio" -- with Florestan singing his aria in a dumpster. Ah, but I digress.

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Opera Vivente's Baltimore-ized production of "The Magic Flute," which opened over the weekend, isn't likely to set off over-heated reactions. It's a workable, often imaginative approach. I didn't hear any boos Friday night at Emmanuel Episcopal, and I can't imagine any of the artists would have ever considered quitting the venture to protest liberties taken. Everyone in the place seemed to have a grand time with it, and the audience ate up the local allusions (as Young Victorian Theatre patrons do every summer when references to Baltimore people, places and events get tossed into Gilbert and Sullivan operettas).

The most pronounced and entertaining Bawlmer element in OV's "Flute" is

a Papageno who has been turned into a nerdy Orioles fan peddling team souvenirs. The character is nowhere more colorful than when, singing about finding an ideal wife, he punctuates his aria with perfectly timed flips of the lids on Natty Boh cans. There are laughs to be had, too, from the sight of the Three Ladies who dispense with the "snakes" -- in this case, paparazzi following Tamino around -- and their pouting teenage girls as the Three Spirits. The trials of fire and water are given an interesting spin. They take place behind closed doors of a boiler room, as security guards clown for cell phone photos outside; Pamina and Tamino emerge from one suitably scorched, the other suitably wet.

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In the end, though, I wish there were a little more Mozart and a little less Bowen. His English version of the libretto has contemporary zest, but also some vulgarisms that seem gratuitous. Speaking of vulgar, the scene between Pamina and the threatening Monostatos sticks out for a crudeness that doesn't match the rest of the staging. And turning the wild beasts of the original opera into panhandlers and street persons strikes an awkward note. The director's touch is most heavy-handed, though, when Pamina reaches her Act 2 aria, one of the most eloquent moments in the score. While she sings, Papageno has a noisy nosh with bags of snack food, spray-cheese-in-a-can and more. Yeah, the Papageno shtick is funny, but the visual and aural distraction creates a peculiarly anti-musical effect.

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Speaking of wishes, I would have welcomed stronger casting here and there. On Friday night, the weakest vocal link was Frederic Rey as Tamino. Except for some pleasantly shaded soft passages, his singing sounded effortful and inelegant. As Pamina, Leah Inger offered expressive phrasing, but not quite enough tonal warmth. John Dooley had a romp as Papageno. Even if his accent veered more toward Cockney than Dundalk, his endearing characterization carried the Baltimore concept along nicely. The baritone's vocal contributions were a decided asset as well. Marcy Richardson didn't master the hon accent, but sang brightly and offered vibrant acting as Papagena. Joy Greene stole the show, vocally, as the Queen of the Night, navigating the treacherous coloratura confidently. David B. Morris didn't have the deep, dark bass notes for Sarastro, but his eloquent singing paid handsome dividends just the same. The rest of the cast brought more or less effective vocal talent and a good deal of spirited acting to the production. Jed Gaylin efficiently conducted the small, mostly reliable orchestra.

Like Center Stage's "Importance of Being Earnest" production back in the fall, the "Flute" set relies on large block letters to provide the main scenic props, in this case spelling out "HON," and they're cleverly manipulated into various shapes along the way.

Remaining performances of "The Magic Flute" are on Thursday and Saturday.

PHOTOS BY CORY WEAVER

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