New magic strikes Spoleto's 'Flute'

05.28.11
Steven Sloane
Charlotte Observer

By Steven Brown

CHARLESTON Opera companies supply plenty of performances of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." So is it really much of a service for the Spoleto Festival USA to step in with what opera lovers can already find elsewhere?

The only justification is for the festival to inject something fresh into this beloved but familiar fairy tale. And boy, does Spoleto's "Magic Flute" ever do that. In the festival's staging, which opened Friday night, hardly a scene goes by without something inventive or eye-catching to give a new charge to the story of a brave prince, his not-so-virtuous sidekick and their quest for love and - at least in the prince's case - wisdom.

The musical instrument of the title makes its appearance by levitating into view from offstage. The opera's villainess, whose role is famed for its vocal fireworks, sets off more pyrotechnics than just that kind - and not just onstage.

A man caught misbehaving suddenly drops through the floor. A woman freed from her cares is freed from the bonds of gravity - and we have an homage to "Peter Pan." Whoever would expect that in Mozart?

Stage directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Couriers get the credit for those strokes and many others. Even when they aren't digging into their bag of tricks, they guide Spoleto's cast in performances that are full of life and feeling. A few of their gambits don't come off. But the surprises come steadily enough that any miscalculations are soon cleared away.

On Friday, Swedish soprano Marie Arnet - playing Pamina, the object of Prince Tamino's affection - didn't sound at home with the lyrical delicacy of her aria, the most soulful part of the opera. But outside of that, her Pamina was spirited, affecting and warm.

As Tamino, Swiss tenor Fabio Trumpy conveyed a strength that belied the lightness of his voice. Swiss baritone Ruben Drole, playing the prince's sidekick, the birdcatcher Papageno, let lusty voice and uninhibited demeanor put over Papageno's free spirit.

As the "star-blazing" Queen of the Night, to borrow a character's description of the story's fount of meanness, Audrey Luna was a vocal fireball. She hurled out high notes that hit home like the dagger she once threw to the stage - which stabbed so hard that it remained standing on its point. Kevin Short's sonorous tones made it instantly clear that the high priest Sarastro, the story's beacon of wisdom, was the queen's total, metaphysical opposite. Yet he was undercut by Leiser and Caurier's decision to plant him on stilts of some sort beneath his trousers. Yes, he towered over everyone. But his every step, not surprisingly, looked careful. So the effect fell flat, even though he (thank goodness) did not.

Conductor Steven Sloane and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra contributed a speed and zest that kept the story light on its feet. Leiser and Caurier's staging was all the more vivid thanks to Christian Fenouillat's set designs - including luminous religious icons for Sarastro's adherents - and Agostino Cavalca's costumes, which ranged from sober to exuberantly outlandish. After all, a fairy tale should be a little outlandish, shouldn't it?