Color, movement, comedy and high ceremony were the hallmarks of Mozart's The Magic Flute in its opening performance by Opera Tampa at the Straz Center in Tampa on Friday night.
Oh yes, and beautiful singing too — although sometimes there was so much happening onstage that one's attention could stray from some of the most sophisticated music Mozart ever wrote.
Even an opera purist, however, must remember that Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder planned something of the sort. Together they devised an entertainment that contained as much slapstick as love song and solemn ritual.
In any case, Friday night's audience ate it up.
For comedy, it's hard to imagine a funnier performance than Aaron St. Clair Nicholson's as Papageno, the bumbling, self-centered, cowardly (and horny) bird catcher. His rubbery limbs and deadpan face were all over the stage, with perfect comic timing. Likewise "the three ladies," henchwomen to the devious Queen of the Night, looked like the original bad girls, decked out in sunglasses and spiky hair. When they later appeared in scarves I immediately thought of Thelma and Louise.
Magic Flute, unlike most operas, includes regular episodes of spoken dialog. In this production the funny bits were enhanced by speaking them in English, while the singing remained in the original German, with translations above the stage, of course.
Ultimately, an opera's impact relies on the quality of that singing. Most of the internationally drawn cast did not disappoint.
Jonathan Boyd, in the lead role of Prince Tamino, was especially stalwart. Boyd displayed a clear and focused tenor voice full of masculine assurance, well matched to a character who must prove both his humanity and his strength of purpose by undergoing a series of trials.
James Moellenhoff, as the high priest Sarastro, was similarly impressive, his deep bass conveying the nobility of benevolent wisdom and brotherhood.
The most difficult role belongs to the Queen of the Night. She has only two arias, but they are scorchers, requiring almost superhuman control of many rapid high notes. Coloratura soprano Sang-Eun Lee's tone was pure and her voice impressively agile. In two very brief moments, alas, she proved to be human.
Sari Gruber gave a transparent and emotionally effective performance of Princess Pamina, especially in the scene where she contemplates suicide because she falsely believes her prince, pledged to silence during his initiation rituals, has forsaken her.
Only Brian Downen, as Monostatos, lacked sufficient projection to be an effective villain, even a pitiable one.
Now, back to the staging. Artistic director Lipton engaged a German expressionist choreographer, Arila Siegert, to direct the action. Siegert missed no opportunity for movement, sometimes to enchanting effect. The scene where Papageno and his new mate Papagena giddily anticipate the creation of new offspring is funny and sexy without offending anyone's grandmother.
Even Siegert's radical recasting of Tamino as merely a young man, who dreams he is Prince Tamino, works well enough. Until the very end: The dream has to end, and Siegert has to get the young man back to his bed.
Mozart's opera sublimely ties all loose ends together in a glorious three-minute major-key finale. But just as we should be reveling in that music, our eyes are drawn to the confusing spectacle of Tamino wandering lost and alone among the joyful throng, without his Pamina. And the Queen of the Night — didn't she just disappear into a fiery pit? What's she doing there?
Only in the last seconds, as the music ends, does the real-life Pamina return to her loved one, in his rumpled bed.