Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Second Look: the Kaneko-Gockley Production of “Magic Flute” – San Francisco Opera, June 24, 2012

July 2nd, 2012

Having reported on the premiere of the Jun Kaneko production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” [see Perfect Game: Gunn, Shagimuratova Shine in New Kaneko-Designed “Magic Flute” – June 13, 2012], I attended the fifth of the nine scheduled performances.

Each of the observations made in my first review were reconfirmed by the later performance. The cast, on the whole, performed admirably.The sets by Jun Kaneko were colorful and interesting. The stage diretion by Harry Silverstein lively and never dull. The digital animation of the Clark Creative Group was brilliantly conceived and left a magical impression.

[Below: Papageno (Nathan Gunn, left) is finally united with his bride-to-be, Papagena (Nadine Sierra, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

But these “second look” reviews of later performances can be written at a more measured pace, since there is not the urgency associated with posting the review of a first performance. It also permits some time to reflect on some “bigger picture” ways to assess this “Flute”.

One such way is to consider the totality of all three opera productions presented in the San Francisco Opera summer season – by such different composers as Mozart, the 18th century Austrian, Verdi, the 19th century Italian, and Adams, the 20th century American. Stated this way, one can see the summer repertory is balanced as being from different time periods, and as representing three quite different operatic styles.

The General Director’s Projects

But I would argue there is a different way to look at the three operas, two in productions “new to San Francisco” and “The Magic Flute”, a production never before seen anywhere.

Two of the three productions – “Nixon in China” and “The Magic Flute” could be described as personal projects of San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley, and the third “Attila” as the personal project of the opera company’s Music Director, Nicola Luisotti.

[Below: Front row, from left to right, the Second Priest (Joo Won Kang, holding globe), the Speaker (David Pittsinger, holding globe), Sarastro (Kristinn Sigmundsson); the First Priest (Christopher Jackson, holding globe); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

If one considers the San Francisco Opera’s summer season of the previous year, 2011 was the summer of the Francesca Zambello “Ring” – which Gockley, of course, had much to do with, encouraging it from the beginning and infusing scarce resources into having it ready in time, when the co-producing Washington National Opera had to postpone its financial commitment to it to later seasons. But it was ultimately Zambello’s creation, and it was she who got (and deserved) the credit.

Summer 2011 was also the end of the Long Goodbye to former Music Director Donald Runnicles, Luisotti’s predecessor.

In contrast, the Summer of 2012 appears to me to be the clearest indication yet of the directions in which Gockley and Luisotti are leading the company.

Gockley and “The Magic Flute”

It had been Gockley’s intention early in his tenure as General Director of the San Francisco Opera to mount “The Magic Flute” in the charming Maurice Sendak production, but Hurricane Wilma, one of the devastating natural disasters to hit Florida last decade, inundated the containers of costumes, then being rented by the Florida Grand Opera. When the costumes arrived next in Portland, Oregon, which was on the Sendak production’s rental list before San Francisco, the costumes had molded beyond repair.

Fortunately, the imaginative Gerald Scarfe sets and costumes owned by the Los Angeles Opera, were made available to San Francisco [see my review at The Magic Scarfe: “Zauberfloete” in San Francisco – October 13, 2007]. But the loss of the Sendak production was obviously a disappointment to Gockley, and likely led to the decision to have a new production of “Magic Flute” the next time he scheduled the opera.

[Below: Greg Fedderly as Monostatos; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Magic Flute vs Zauberfloete in San Francisco

When I was in college, I went to the fourth performance of “The Magic Flute” ever performed in San Francisco by the San Francisco Opera’s main company – not the fourth season in which the opera was mounted, but Performance #4 in the company’s history. In fact, the opera was never performed at all until 1950 and then only for two performances. Then it remained out of the repertory for another 17 years, when it was performed five more times (with me attending the second and fifth performances).

From 1950 to 1980 “Flute” was performed in five seasons. One of the notable features of these years, the first of which was under the General Directorship of Gaetano Merola, the other four under that of Kurt Herbert Adler, was that “Flute” was invariably performed in English, for four seasons in the Ruth and Thomas Martin translation, in 1980, in the Andrew Porter translation.

Significantly, these English language performances abounded with native English speaking singers, including the knighted artists Sir Geraint Evans as Papageno, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as Pamina, and Dame Donna Petersen as the Third Lady. American artists such as Dale Duesing, Sheri Greenawald and Alan Titus and the Welshman Stuart Burrows were joined by the occasional non-British European – notably, Christina Deutekom’s Queen of the Night and Ragnar Ulfung’s Monostatos, but Native English-speakers were the rule through the Adler Years.

[Below: the Three Ladies (Melody Moore, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum) each find themselves attracted to the “under-age” Prince Tamino (Alek Shrader, lying on ground); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The next three General Directors – Terrence McEwen, Lotfi Mansouri and Pamela Rosenberg – invariably presented the opera in its German form. Yet, even as the Opera presented the German “Die Zauberfloete”, it was performed mainly with English-speaking artists – e.g., Ruth Ann Swenson, Jerry Hadley, Charles Castronovo, with stunning examples of stars of the future in the smaller roles – Deborah Voigt and Patricia Racette as the First Lady.

David Pittsinger’s admirable appearance as the Speaker in 2012 comes 25 years after his first “Magic Flute”  at San Francisco Opera. In 1987, Pittsinger and the great Wagnerian tenor James King were paired as the Two-Armored Men.

In fact, the most famous artist not originally from an English-speaking country during the “Zauberfloete” years in San Francisco,was Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza (Tamino, 1987).

Whatever might be the casting advantages of always performing Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” or Verdi’s “Aida” in their original languages, the applicability of those advantages to operas with large amounts of spoken dialogue and abundant comic routines falls away.

[Below: Pamina (Heidi Stober, third from left), consults with the Three Boys (Etienne Julius Valdez, Joshua Reinier and John Walsh); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

However, once the decision is made to perform “Magic Flute” in English, someone has to decide which of the available translations to use. Gockley envisioned a new translation with whom the widest possible audience could relate. The person he commissioned to do the translation? Himself.

Never naughty, Gockley’s translation still is edgier and certainly more current that the translations by the Martins or Porter.

The cougarish Three Ladies recognize they are all attracted to a young lad who is not yet 18 years old (which, of course, in California is the “age of consent”). Tamino remarks that Papageno’s reference to the “star-flaming queen” sounds like something from a drag show. Papageno collects bird eggs as well as trapping birds, because he practices “sustainable birdcatching”.

Gockley’s translation (which noted some contributions from the production’s conductor Rory Macdonald) was nicely articulated by the mostly American cast, with simultaneous super-titles available for anyone who might have missed a spoken word.

Gockley’s innovations worked. The audiences for the two performances I attended were filled with young persons, including many pre-teens.The audiences responded to the dazzling projections and to the savvy comedy.

One has no doubt that “Magic Flute” is great entertainment when properly presented, and can be an excellent introduction to the world of opera. That clearly is the result that David Gockley intended, and, with full auditoriums of enthusiastic crowds, that is what he got.


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