The last months of Mozart's obscenely short life (he died December 5, 1791, in Vienna, age 35) were spent like every other month – writing music. Tireless and never at a loss for inspiration, he poured out composition after composition – the opera seria La clemenza di Tito, the Clarinet Concerto in A major, a String Quartet in E-flat major, cantatas for his Masonic lodge, the unfinished Requiem, even novelty tunes for a mechanical clock. He needed money for his family, and this middle-class guy with heavenly talent had high-class taste. He loved quality clothes, good food, and a fine cup of coffee. He needed to make a good impression among his haughty noble patrons, many who were left baffled by his music. Surprising as it is for us to understand today, Mozart's ethereal music was only beginning to be appreciated by those Viennese with industry clout, who could offer him lucrative commissions. The public, however, took to him like a magnet.
The Magic Flute (1791) certainly helped.
Written for Emmanuel Schikaneder's popular Theatre auf der Wieden, a rural venue outside the city walls, this fairy-tale work is very much the forerunner of a Broadway show. Known as “sing-spiel,” it incorporates dialogue, music, dancing, and special effects in a special mixture of highbrow and burlesque. Mozart had written for Schikaneder's shows before, adding songs for particular performers he knew, but he leapt at the chance to compose for this everyman's theater.
The complex had recently been refurbished into a state-of-the-art house, and could accomplish every type of scenic effect from balloon ascensions to walks through fire, which is exactly what Schikaneder's libretto demanded. He needed a blockbuster to defray expenses, and Mozart delivered.
Premiering only two months before his untimely death, Mozart's final opera has something for everyone, which accounts for its enduring popularity. It is life-affirming and altogether human, full of that Shakespearean quality that is unique to Mozart.
Pamina, daughter of the evil Queen of the Night, has been kidnapped by Sarastro, high priest of the forces of Light and Goodness. Saving prince Tamino's life, the Queen commands him to rescue her daughter with the help of an enchanted flute, assisted by her wastrel bird-catcher Papageno. After numerous trials and setbacks, the couple is united in love, and the forces of darkness destroyed. Kids love its fairy-tale, good-versus-evil adventure; grownups like the splendid melodies and subtext of honor and duty. Even the archaic notion that the wife must bow to her husband's judgment is splendidly upended when Pamina accompanies Tamino through his ordeals. She becomes his equal, his true partner.
Even the ultra-dramatic numbers, such as Pamina's thoughts of suicide when she believes her lover has deserted her, are tempered by the youthful Three Spirits who hover nearby, vigilant that she doesn't harm herself. The work's wide range of styles – treacherous coloratura for the treacherous Queen, classic Italianate legato for prince Tamino, chasm-deep sonority for majestic Sarastro, and folk tunes for rowdy Papageno – seamlessly mesh into a most harmonious whole. Laugh as the queen's evil minions prance away, entranced under Papgeno's magic spell; thrill to the queen's stratospheric vocal flight in “Der Hölle Rache” (“The wrath of hell”), commanding her daughter to kill Sarastro; listen in beautiful wonder as lovesick Tamino pours out his heart; then laugh again as Papageno meets old crone Papagena in disguise, his reward for disobedience.
Opera in the Heights delivers too. Using a reduced orchestration by Bryan Higgins, maestro Eiki Isomura, OH's artistic director, whips up musical enchantment aplenty. Brisk and taut, he breezes through Mozart. The strings were a bit dodgy and could stand some tuning, but the ensemble sounded full and lush, as did the reduced chorus, greatly embellished by tenor Calvin Harris and bass-baritone Nnamdi Nwankwo, as the Two Guards who guide Tamino on his journey through the temple.
The production is reduced, also. Needless to say, there is no balloon for the Three Spirits, no panoramic vistas of ancient Egypt, no grand temple, no fiery demise for the evil Queen. Yet director Dashiell Waterbury, responsible for the fun-filled surtitles, supplies a low-rent charm to compensate for the missing spectacle. Designer Torsten Louis, abetted by Rachel Clinkscales' mod costumes and Jim Elliott's dappled lighting, lets a few stone blocks stand in for ancient grandeur, rearranged as wall or platform. Honestly, Flute doesn't require DeMille treatment when Mozart's on hand to paint the scenery and set the mood.
The young cast acquits themselves splendidly. Noble Tamino is basically a piece of wood, lovesick and stout of heart. Tenor Paul Nicosia opened up during the second act, no longer the cardboard cutout hero as he began. His firm lilting voice warmed the house as his character came to life. Soprano Maren Weinberger was a delightful Pamina, achingly ardent during her lament aria, and a feisty foil to the pursuit of Monostatos (tenor Brian Yeakley, milking the comic out of this comic villain), and consistently a vibrant presence on stage. Elizabeth Gautsche's Papagena, though most of her dialogue passages were excised, remained full of vigor and spirit. Bass James Harrington imbued grave dignity to Sorastro, tolling his grand aria “In diesen heil'gen Hallen” (“Within these sacred halls”) like the cathedral bells of Vienna's St. Stephen's. The Three Spirits were charmingly performed by young and impassioned Elena Oliveira, Mia Van De Mark, and Kanade Motomura; while the Queen's fiery First Ladies were seductively portrayed by Dominique McCormick, Raphaella Medina, and Naomi Brigell.
Of course what we all want in any production of Flute is a Queen of the Night to send us soaring. Mozart gives her the showstopper of all showstoppers in “Der Hölle Rache,” a fiendishly difficult aria of vocal flying and filigree. Elizabeth Vickers, in her Clockwork Orange mascara and chic black goth gown, certainly looked vengeful, and just missed pulling off a coup. She has the range and the oomph, but landed a few of those devilish high notes a tad sharp. Just this side of greatness.
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But the surprise of the evening was baritone Nicholas Ward as doofus Papageno. He stole the evening with effortless voice and agile presence. He, among all the cast, brought his character right past the footlights and into the audience. What fun he has, that kind of frat boy out for a good time with a bottle of wine in one hand and a comely wench in the other. A second banana we root for, because he's so like us, a lovable smart ass, a little goofy, and oh, so flawed. He gets his girl at the end, and we couldn't be happier. Ward has a personal triumph to add to his resume.
Flute was an instant hit. Mozart conducted the premiere, and even took to playing the glockenspiel in subsequent performances, but he never lived to see what a phenomenal international success he had created. Always sickly, Mozart died of some form of kidney failure, bloated and paralyzed during his last weeks. He was not poisoned by court composer Salieri, nor is it likely he dictated substantial parts of the Requiem to protegee Süssmayr on his death bed. He couldn't move or talk. Wife Constanze created that fiction so no one would know how little he had completed. She needed that final payment from benefactor von Stuppach.
The Magic Flute is Mozart's sublime final testament. It stands alone: grand and silly, high and low. There's nothing in the rep quite like it. But then again there's no one like Mozart either. Opera in the Heights gives us ample proof of his eternal genius.
The Magic Flute continues at 2 p.m. November 12; 7:30 p.m. November 17 and 18; 2 p.m. November 19. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For more information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $12.50 to $74.50. The Emerald cast will sing November 17, and 19: Ryan Connelly (Tamino), Andrew McLaughlin (Papageno), and Natalie Polito (Queen of the Night).