To the many interpretations of “The Magic Flute,” San Francisco Opera has added one with the distinction of looking like an animated cartoon. The company’s current production, which debuted in 2012, appears by turns Disney, Looney Tunes, and Hanna-Barbera; it has a vernacular English libretto (by outgoing General Director David Gockley) that seeks to invigorate Mozart’s fantasy with modern references and lowbrow vaudeville. For the most part, the gimmicks fail. Yet that doesn’t doom the undertaking entirely, for the cast steps up to the challenge and gives the score its due.
When Mozart wrote the opera in 1791, he had in mind a paean to Freemasonry, the fraternal movement that preached Enlightenment virtues. Using a singspiel libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, with its allegorical references to figures in Austrian royalty of the time, Mozart created a musical landscape populated with strange beasts (a dragon menaces a lost prince early on) and human beings with supernatural powers (the sinister Queen of the Night as well as Sarastro, the lead sorcerer in a mysterious temple). The story centers on two couples: the aforementioned prince, Tamino, and his bride-to-be, Pamina, a princess whose mother has a nefarious desire to rule as much of the kingdom as she can get her hands on; along with a vulgar bird hunter, Papageno, and his betrothed, Papagena, who together represent the uncultured yet essentially moral common man. In parallel stories, Tamino and Papageno must undergo a series of tests, overseen by the mysterious Sarastro, to prove themselves worthy of their mates’ love. Meanwhile, Pamina must endure the lecherous overtures of a brutish Moor. In the end, the fanciful plot works its way to a serious conclusion: the elevation of the human spirit and the instrument (here, a magic flute) through which it turns sadness into joy.
The disconnect between concept and what the opera represents is most evident in multimedia designer Jun Kaneko’s weird projections, which stretch across the stage like strands of colored spaghetti and often appear to trickle like blood from the flies. How these advance the plot is an open question. The silliness of his costume design, where saturated colors and bizarre shapes and forms offer few clues as to how they might relate to the opera’s mystical aspects, aren’t much help either. And Harry Silverstein’s direction, though attentive to the principals’ characterizations, arrays large numbers of choristers and supers onstage to little avail, filing them on and off with little imaginative movement. (The one exception is his very funny staging of Monostatos’s “taming” by Papageno’s magic bells – with tenor Greg Fedderly prancing about like a Moor mimicking Elton John.)
The singing counts by far as the best aspect of this off-kilter production. Led by tenor Paul Appleby, who gives a convincingly masculine portrayal of Tamino, the cast is uniformly good in spite of the oft-distracting set and projections. Appleby (making his SF Opera debut) keeps the varying moods of his part clear, from whimsical to wise. As Pamina, Nadine Sierra shines in her duets (though she needs to project more in her spoken dialogue) and conveys especially poignant emotions in her suicide aria. (Sarah Shafer sang the role in the first four performances of the run.) German bass Alfred Reiter likewise creates a Sarastro of gravitas (though he is at times drowned out by the once again overly loud orchestra, otherwise conducted competently by Lawrence Foster). The Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, as the Queen of the Night, hits all her high Fs with requisite coloratura verve. Oddly, she has a habit of looking down and holding an out-of-character grin on her visage (but that may have been an effect of the strange makeup and headdress she wears).
As for makeup, the mime-face mask chosen for Papageno does not deter the Mexican-American baritone Efraín Solís from delivering an unabashedly fresh account of his appealing character. Solís, a second-year Adler fellow, possesses fine comedic timing in his spoken bits and then alternates charming seduction in his duets with serious despair in his suicide aria, which of course is thwarted when he plays his bells and wins over Papagena. Such bravado, vocally and in terms of acting talent, is not often seen on the War Memorial stage. But Solís reminds audiences that the sheer power of his voice can transcend even the wayward trappings of a misconceived design. He has certainly grasped the essence of Mozart’s intentions. May he prevail.