By Sheila Abrams
If, when we die, we go to heaven and are rewarded for the good we’ve done in life, and if I’ve done enough good to earn a reward, I want to be able to sing the role of The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. And I want it to sound just like it did when Maria Alu sang it in Dolan Hall at the College of St. Elizabeth last Sunday.
The queen’s aria in the second act, “Hell’s Vengeance” (“Die Hölle Rasche”) is a guaranteed show-stopper, and I’ve always wondered why, if she is the opera’s number one villain, Mozart gave her the most spectacular aria to sing. Could it have been because Josepha Hofer, the soprano who sang the role in the 1791 premiere, was Mozart’s sister-in-law?
Anyway, Alu is an incredibly gifted coloratura soprano and, having heard her sing before, I was not surprised by her breath-taking delivery. But her wonderful performance was pretty much matched by the rest of the cast in this event, which closed the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey’s week-long summer festival.
The performance was a semi-staged version, with the orchestra toward the back of the stage. The singers, a full cast all in costume, were at the front of the stage, with just two fabric-covered benches as scenery. Somehow, because the music is so transporting, this format works and the presence of the orchestra and its energetic conductor, Robert W. Butts, quickly ceases to be a distraction.
The plot of the opera is so silly that it hardly seems worth the effort to relate it. A fairy tale of sorts, it has an imprisoned princess, a prince seeking to free her, an enlightened wizard/priest, an evil and really angry queen, and an array of surrounding characters. There is some belief that the emphasis in the libretto on wisdom and purity of heart is connected to Free Masonry. Mozart was himself a Mason as were others involved in the creation of the masterpiece.
One of the special things about The Magic Flute, though, is that it would be virtually impossible for one of the ostensibly minor characters not to become the audience’s favorite. Papageno, the bird-catcher, sung on Sunday by Ted Dougherty, provides comic relief from the very beginning. He also has some wonderful music. Papageno is sort-of Robin to Prince Tamino’s Batman, a sidekick who unwittingly gets pulled into the high-minded pursuits of his superiors.
The Magic Flute is a Singspiel, an opera with sung arias and spoken dialogue, sort of like musical theater. Thus Dougherty’s comic acting skills were much in evidence, particularly in his interaction with his beloved Papagena. But his beautiful bass-baritone voice was a treat, especially because his diction is exquisite and his sung words were easy to understand. (Another interesting historical note is that the original Papageno was Emanuel Schikaneder, the libretticist.)
Perhaps there is something about that deep voice that makes lyrics more understandable. The arias sung by the marvelous bass-baritone Don Sheasley as the wizard/priest Sarastro were also clear and comprehensible. (When doing opera in English, it is worth remembering that some kinds of singing voices make the words a challenge to understand.)
While Alu, Dougherty and Sheasley stood out, the entire cast was wonderful. Kevin Peters, as Tamino, has an achingly pure tenor voice, perfect for a romantic lead. Karole Lewis was a lovely Pamina. Three very young opera students, Paige Whitmore, Gianna Porfano and Samuel Szych added an other-worldly beauty as the three spirits.
And Jessica Essrig was a funny and charming Papagena.
I could find no program credits for the two tiny children, dressed in colorful bird costumes, who came up from the audience and completed Papageno’s family at the end. They added a sensational “Aw-w-w-w” factor to the opera’s finale.
I’ve seen other versions of The Magic Flute, including one at the Metropolitan Opera. There were elaborate sets and costumes and even special effects, and some of the singers were big names. But none of those versions were as much fun as this one. Kudos, BONJ!