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Soprano Kathryn Lewek Soars as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute

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The set-up: Mozart's final opera, a grand fairy tale filled with lofty philosophy and low-brow vaudeville, is the work that gave him the most pleasure. Not only was The Magic Flute his most profitable hit, running daily sold-out performances at the suburban, middle class Theater auf der Wieden, but the Viennese had finally warmed up to his incomparable stylish music. He never lived to see Flute conquer the world, for he died two months after the premiere, described at the time in the city's leading newspaper, Wiener Zeitung, as an "irreplaceable loss."

The last few months had been replete with renewed hope and financial security. Although passed over for the prestigious job of imperial kapellmeister, he nonetheless was appointed head of music at St. Steven's, Vienna's foremost cathedral, a cushy post indeed. He had been invited to London for a series of concerts; received two hefty commissions from subscribers in Amsterdam and Hungary; his other operas were fast becoming staples of the repertory throughout Germany. He was busy writing a clarinet concerto, some cantatas for his Masonic lodge, feverishly working on his Requiem; and had a success of sorts in Prague in September with his opera seria La clamenza di Tito. To top off his happiness, wife Constanze had given birth in July to a new son. Things were looking up.

Mozart had friends at every musical level, but one of his dearest friends was tenor Benedikt Schak of Emmanuel Schikaneder's rural theater, for whom Mozart would write songs to be interpolated into whatever show he was appearing. Mozart loved this German theater of stage effects, low comedy, and fantastic plots.

Soon, Schikaneder, impresario/actor/singer/fellow Mason, joined forces with Mozart to produce a blockbuster, a German singspiel, very much like a Broadway show - telling the story through dialogue, songs, and dance. (With music by Mozart, this is the highest quality musical.) The theater had been refurbished into a state-of-the-art house, and could accomplish every type of scenic effect from balloon ascensions to walks through fire. It was the perfect place to stage Flute with its epic panoramas of ancient Egypt, jungle animals dancing to a magic tune, a hellish Queen of the Night who vanishes into damnation's flames, priestly rituals, a trio of boys floating overhead in that new-fangled contraption, the balloon, and feather-trimmed bird catcher Papageno, the everyman doofus out for a good time with a bottle of wine in one hand and a comely wench in the other. The execution: This life-affirming opera is Mozart at his most sunny. Even the ultra-dramatic numbers, such as Pamino's thoughts of suicide when she believes her lover has deserted her, are tempered by the youthful, ethereal 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, crystalline and chasm-deep sound for Sarastro, leader of the forces of light, and folk tunes for rowdy Papageno - seamlessly fit together into a most harmonious whole.

Flute is indeed an opera for the entire family, there's something for everybody. Laugh as the queen's evil minions prance away, entranced under Papageno's magic spell; thrill to the queen's vocal flight in "Der Hölle Rache" (The wrath of Hell), commanding her daughter to kill Sarastro or face mother's vengeance; listen in beautiful wonder as lovesick Tamino pours out his heart; then laugh again as Papageno meets old crone Papagena, his reward for disobedience. (Naturally, she's not what he thinks she is; this is a happy-ever-after opera.)

In this sparse but handsome production from English National Opera, with color-coded sets and stylish costumes by Tony award-winner Bob Crowley and rather perfunctory direction from Sir Nicholas Hytner, Mozart's own magic is put to three severe tests.

Why in this day and age, does Houston Grand Opera perform this work in English! Ever since the invention of sub and super titles, every major opera company in the world now honors the composer's original intentions. If the opera's in German, sing it in German. Why muck around, ill-fitting an entirely different language with its particular cadence and stress into the original's musical beat, like Cinderella's stepsisters' cutting off toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper? It makes a bloody mess and fools nobody. Wit could have helped translator Jeremy Sams, because his doggerel rhymes are clumsy and fall deaf on the ear. Accents are stretched or combined over too many notes, as if this is Handel at his most florid. Translating never works well. And you dishonor the composer - and librettist, too, who never gets enough credit anyway. To the cast's credit, though, their diction is superb, all the more disheartening to hear Sams' ungainly rhymes so sharp and crisp.

As for the dialogue scenes, they, too, are the bane of contemporary houses when singers have to speak lines. They throw their voices out in a most unnatural way, hitting every third syllable as if they're Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. It's stilted in the extreme. Even such uncomplicated fare as an introduction is never said so simply as, Who are you, and what are you doing here? It's belted out with many significant pauses, Who are YOU and what ARE you doing HERE! It's just awful. Where's the dialogue coach?

And then there is the conducting by Robert Spano, music director of Atlanta Symphony and Aspen Music Institute. With his impressive list of credentials, conducting all over the world in all the great houses, you would think he would know better. But, no. This is the slowest rendition of Flute I have ever heard. Was he channeling former maestro Eschenbach, perhaps the slowest conductor since Furtwangler? Sweet Wolfgang, I thought this wonderful opera, full of spritz and majesty, would never end. Everything dragged, the tension pulled out of shape until it was mass of taffy. The audience at the Theater auf der Widen would've thrown tomatoes, at least.

But there were bright spots. One a supernova. Soprano Kathryn Lewek was a jaw-dropping Queen of the Night, her signature role throughout the world. It's possible in the opera world to make a career out of one role, and she's done it. Although she's been directed to pose bombastically like a silent screen vamp with extra broad gestures and upraised arms, it's her shimmery, pinprick voice in full command of Mozart's most showstopping arias that do the trick. Her Act I "Zum Leiden" (In Grief), which builds from a lament to a piercing accusation, is only the tease for perhaps the most famous - and famously difficult - of all coloratura outbursts in the rep, the aforementioned Act II "Wrath of Hell" aria that everyone somewhere has heard, even if they've never heard of Magic Flute. That she nails this aria is not news, but that she breathes real fire into this wan production. Everything comes alive when she's on stage. When she sweeps off, the opera light goes out.

The rest of the cast was fine, but not exceptional, which proves how much Mozart demands the highest quality of performers, even with such a half-vaudeville as Flute. Soprano Nicole Heaston was a creamy-voiced Pamina; tenor David Portillo cut a princely figure with voice to match as Tamino; bass Morris Robinson was underwhelming as stentorian Sorastro; baritone Michael Sumuel beguiled as feathery Papageno; tenor Aaron Tegram, as evil Monostatos, got lost amid his swirling velvet great coat; soprano Pureum Jo made a sassy, comic Papgena. The queen's three ladies were elegantly sexy (D'Ana Lombard, Megin Samarin, Carolyn Sproule), but the vocal treat was the luminous Spirit trio (Hannah Haw, Brook Camryn, Eden Nielson), all high school students who, though bereft of their balloon in this production - somebody else gets to fly - stole our hearts with their angelic tone.

The verdict: OK, the maestro leads the orchestra like he's on a glacier, the singers for the most part aren't as nimble when speaking, and the whole thing's been poorly translated into English for no good reason, but...There is the formidable Lewek raining down thunder claps and lightning flashes when she opens her mouth. The original Queen of the Nile was Mozart's sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, known for her flawless fiery technique. Make room for Lewek. She burns. The Magic Flute continues. February 1m, 4, 7, 14. Student matinees on February 11, 10m, and 13m. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.hgo.org or call 713-228-6737. $50-$373.75.

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