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Magic Show

Mozart and Maurice make a fine combo

Two hundred years from now, only Jeopardy! champions will remember who won Super Bowl XXXVIII, let alone that it was played in Houston. But if history is any indication, we'll still be playing and applauding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's music.

Friday night, hundreds of Houstonians, and likely as many out-of-towners, braved the Super Bowl gridlock to attend Houston Grand Opera's opening of Maurice Sendak's version of The Magic Flute. HGO had urged patrons to arrive at least two hours before the 7:30 p.m. curtain, and they did, in droves. What's even more surprising, the majority stayed in their seats for the entire three-hour performance. How to explain this phenomenon? There are lots of reasons, none of which is that they couldn't get tickets to P. Diddy's party.

The Magic Flute is the tale of a young prince, Tamino, who must make a journey toward enlightenment, and with it, love. The action starts when he's rescued from a serpent by three ladies. They turn out to be attendants of the Queen of the Night, who demands that in return he rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the clutches of the Sun Priests (think of them as the Masons). Tamino finds Pamina, they fall in love, and he himself is sworn into the secret society, which espouses truth and virtue. But this is only after high priest Sarastro (sung well by Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) kills Pamina's mom.

The queen's death here is not like the shooting of Bambi's mother. It's the triumph of light over darkness, or knowledge over ignorance -- a Freemason principle. The story is a highly moral, albeit very complicated, allegory for kids, a tale that proves that just being a grown-up doesn't make you right. Luckily, we have Mozart's sense of humor to lighten things up, especially in regards to Papageno, the comic lead character, a show-stealing bird catcher who becomes the prince's sidekick.

The Magic Flute is Mozart at his best. Written in 1791, shortly before his death, this German opera combines all the layered voices, stunning arias and romantic duets that make Mozart so revered. And HGO's cast does not disappoint. American soprano Alexandra Coku provides a full-voiced heroine as Pamina, particularly in her Act II tear-jerking aria "Ach, Ich fuhl's." She performs her most lilting duet, "Wir wollen uns der Liebe freu'n, Wir leben durch die Lieb allein," with Papageno (sung by American baritone Daniel Belcher). It's one of Mozart's most beloved duets, and the two artists sing it wonderfully. As Tamino, American tenor and former HGO studio artist Chad Shelton plays a fine hero, but the first-act singing award goes to Polish soprano Katarzyna Dondalska in her HGO debut as the Queen of the Night. She manages the obstacle course of her Act I coloratura aria with aplomb.

This particular production of Flute is viable for children and opera novices alike. The almost-scary children's book illustrations of Sendak (of Where the Wild Things Are fame) translate into fantastical drops that transform the Brown Theater stage into an esoteric forest, an overgrown jungle with Egyptian ruins and the inner sanctum of a mythic temple. Sendak created this world for HGO in 1980 in his first foray into opera design, and the company has since sold the production to Florida Grand Opera (HGO borrowed it back for this season). Luckily, HGO decided to touch up the 29 drops to restore the original brilliance of Sendak's art, and as a result, the storybook look is as fresh as it was when it was last seen in Houston in 1991. The dragon-serpent in Act I still resembles Barney on acid. Children will applaud the two puppet-headed minions of the Queen of the Night, as well as the colorful balloon gondola that flies about the stage. (Do keep in mind that this is also Wolfie at his music-hall bawdiest, and your kids may have a few questions about the rampant sex jokes.)

Originally considered a fluffy and hard-to-follow fairy tale unworthy of Mozart's magic, Flute has become recognized by scholars and opera enthusiasts alike as the inspired story of a youth's journey into manhood, away from childhood beliefs and toward worldly virtues. It's also a blatant endorsement of Freemasonry, and unless you're one of the three people who haven't read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, you'll be mesmerized by the show's symbols and secret rituals. If imbibing in the theater were allowed, Act II would make an excellent drinking game: Take a shot every time you notice a pyramid on stage. The Super Bowl may be over, but thanks to Mozart, there's still reason to party.

 
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