A Magical Flute

Mozart's The Magic Flute lends itself to an imaginative set design. Indeed, it almost demands one that can capture the flavor of the heroic/comic opera, which Mozart set in ancient Egypt.

Several seasons ago, Houston Grand Opera presented renowned illustrator Maurice Sendak's delightful vision of The Magic Flute. Now, HGO is presenting well-known British satirical artist Gerald Scarfe's conception of the work. While Scarfe's take on the opera may not be as warm and inviting as Sendak's, it's just as captivating. And it's possibly even a bit more interesting.

As seen through Scarfe's eyes, The Magic Flute takes place in a brightly colored world dominated by pyramids, temples and other imposing structures, a world populated by a strange and varied assortment of human beings ranging from the beautiful Princess Pamina to the wild-haired, befeathered bird catcher Papageno to the grotesque chief slave Monostatos. In the midst of this bizarre collection of human beings is an equally strange menagerie of animals, including a gigantic multicolored snake, a fanciful ostrich and a six-legged dinosaur-like creature.

The costumes are as outre as the humans and the animals, with the high priest Sarastro and his followers looking very much like they just got off a spaceship. At Sunday's matinee, this spectacle kept the audience's attention glued to the stage. Laughter frequently erupted as one odd character after another traipsed on-stage.

But Scarfe's imaginative sets aren't the only reason to see The Magic Flute. The music matches the surroundings, thanks to some fine performances by a young cast, many of whom are current or former members of Houston Opera Studio. Tenor Raymond Very and soprano Nicole Heaston, for example, are excellent as Tamino and Pamina, the opera's hero and heroine. And baritone Frank Hernandez is delightful as Papageno, the opera's antihero, who generally ends up being an audience favorite. As the imposing Queen of the Night, soprano Mary Dunleavy is outstanding. For that matter, so is bass Eric Owens as the high priest Sarastro.

Mozart's opera follows the adventures and misadventures of Tamino and Papageno as they strive to qualify for initiation into Sarastro's noble brotherhood -- and win the hands of the women they love. In the end, only Tamino qualifies for the brotherhood, but Papageno gets all that he really wanted in the first place -- his bride Papagena -- so all ends happily.

The music ranges from the profoundly serious to the highly amusing, but on balance, the tone is lighthearted. In The Magic Flute, perhaps more than in any of his other operas, Mozart displays his genius for both the dramatic and the humorous. Moreover, this is one of the most accessible operas in the standard repertoire, and as such is a good choice for anyone wanting to see an opera for the first time.

The work abounds with musical treasures, the most famous being the Queen of the Night's famous second act coloratura aria, in which she implores her daughter, Pamina, to kill her archenemy, Sarastro. At Sunday's matinee, Dunleavy sang this difficult aria with power and commitment, drawing an enthusiastic response from the audience. She also offered an excellent rendition of the Queen of the Night's other well-known aria, which occurs in the first act when she promises Tamino her daughter's hand if he will free her from the clutches of Sarastro.

Papageno has several delightful numbers, and Hernandez was in top form when he sang the charming first-act aria where he introduces himself and explains his trade. He also offered an amusing interpretation of Papageno's second-act aria, where he describes his longing for a wife. Similarly, his second-act duet with Kimberly Jones, in which Papageno is at last united with his beloved Papagena, was thoroughly enjoyable.

Another musical highlight was Sarastro's second-act aria, in which he invokes the goddess Isis and the god Osiris. Owens sang this number with depth and feeling. Not to be outdone, Very sang a moving rendition of Tamino's first-act aria in which he describes how enraptured he is by a portrait of Pamina. And Heaston and Hernandez offered a lovely interpretation of Pamina's and Papageno's first-act duet, where they sing the praises of love.

The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, led by conductor Richard Bado, offered a spirited rendition of Mozart's captivating score. The choral singing was also excellent, particularly at the end, when everyone hails the triumph of courage and wisdom.

Unlike previous productions of The Magic Flute, this version is sung in English rather than the original German. Nonetheless, HGO wisely chose to use surtitles. Even when an opera is performed in the language of the audience, the dialogue is often difficult to comprehend, and the surtitles aid greatly in the understanding.

HGO deserves commendation for continuing to present new stagings of standard works. It would have been easy to simply revive the Sendak production. Instead, HGO has produced a new vision of a Mozart classic that most operagoers should find truly entertaining.

The Magic Flute plays through May 17 at the Brown Theater, Wortham enter, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bruce Guynn