Opera Warhorses

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

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Mizrahi’s Charming “Magic Flute” Production Opens OTSL 2014 Season – St Louis, May 24, 2014

May 25th, 2014

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi created the staging, costumes and mise-en-scéne for a new production of Mozart’s comedy “The Magic Flute”.

Mizrahi’s “Flute” opened the 2014 season of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis, incorporating the brilliant dance routines of Alaskan choreographer John Heginbotham.

[Below: Fashion designer and “Magic Flute” production designer Isaac Mizrahi; resized image of a publicity photograph.]


Mizrahi’s “backstory” on the characters in his telling of the familiar story, is that the Queen of the Night is a silent film actress who is observing the development of a film in the early decades of the sound era, when dance routines flourished.

Populating the stage are various studio watchmen, backstage personnel and other functionaries (whose services include moving pieces of the set to change from scene to scene).

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Tamino; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]


Whether one relates to the idea of the Queen of the Night (arrestingly played by Canadian soprano Claire De Sévigné) as a fading film star or not, the evening true successes were the fine performances of the quartet of principal singers, and the use of dancers to provide artistic accompaniment to many of Mozart’s “unvocalized” musical passages.

The opera’s principals, besides De Sévigné, include Pennsylvania lyric tenor Sean Panikkar (Tamino), Washington lyric soprano Elizabeth Zharoff (Pamina), and Texas lyric baritone Levi Hernandez (Papageno).

[Below: Papageno (Levi Hernandez, left) attracts an owl; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]


The seven dancers (New York dancer Dwayne Brown, Colorado dancer Elizabeth Coker, Florida dancer John Eirich, New York dancer David Gonsier, North Carolina dancer Alexandra Parsons, and Texas dancer Weaver Rhodes) appeared in various forms, representing both humans and fauna.

Three of the dancers are what I call avatars – dancers who are costumed identically to, and, when dancing, represent the respective characters of Tamino, Pamina and Papageno.

(Those who saw Achim Freyer’s production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” for the Los Angeles Opera will be familiar with this concept, although the “Flute” avatars are not intended to suggest the conceptual layering that a Freyer work entails.)

This is the first performance in which I’ve seen Panikkar since he became a celebrity in other fields of music as a member of the third runner-up group in the finale of NBC-Universal’s reality show America’s Got Talent.

[Below: Tamino (Sean Panikkar, center, in red fez, playing flute) attracts (from left to right) a frog, cat, rabbit and deer and the Pamina’s avatar.]


In an interview that I conducted prior to his AGT star turn (see Rising Stars: An Interview with Sean Panikkar, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Sean Panikkar, Part 2), Panikkar expressed his desire to retain such parts as Tamino, even as his obviously maturing tenor voice grew in size and power.

I enjoyed the large, open sound he brought to the role, and found it particularly effective in what I regard as one of Mozart’s great showpieces, Tamino’s encounter on his quest for truth and enlightenment with the Two Armored Men.

[Below: Tamino  (Sean Panikkar, center) engages with the Two Armored Men (Frederick Ballantine, far right, and Zachary Owen, far left, as the men of the temple (in red jackets and fezes) move about; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]


Nicely matched with Panikkar’s Tamino was the creamy lyric soprano voice of Elizabeth Zharoff.

A sympathetic actress, her part was especially enhanced by the persuasiveness of the dancing of her avatar.

[Below: Elizabeth Zharoff as Pamina; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph,courtesy of the Opera Company of Saint Louis.]


The vocal marvel of the night, who received sustained ovations after each of her major arias, was Claire De Sévigné, dashing off her precision coloratura cadenzas with seeming effortlessness, with excursion into the stratosphere of notes above high C.

[Below: the Queen of the Night (Claire De Sévigné, left) tries to convince her daughter, Pamina (Elizabeth Zharoff, right) to commit a murder for her; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]


If the Queen of the Night has a built-in advantage to steal the show vocally, the audience favorite more often than not ends up as the Papageno.

Levi Hernandez’s portrayal was a sympathetic crowd-pleaser. His magic bells were associated with a music box on which usually danced a magic butterfly.

[Below: Papageno (Levi Hernandez, center, standing on a music box), by playing the magic bells, attracts the Papageno avatar (left) and a butterfly who is always associated with the bells; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Opera Company of Saint Louis.]


Others in the cast were New York bass Matthew Anchel as Sarastro, Massachusetts tenor Matthew DiBattista as a blue-faced Monostatos, Wisconsin bass-baritone Andrew Kroes as the Spokesman of the Temple, and Georgia tenor (and Gerdine Young Artist) Spencer Viator as a Priest.

Gerdine Young Artists filled the remaining roles. Virginia tenor Frederick Ballentine and Illinois bass-baritone Zachary Owen were the Two Armored Men and  Wisconsin soprano Katrina Galka was Papagena. Georgia soprano Emily Tweedy, New York mezzo-soprano Gillian Lynn Cotter, and Irish mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron were the Three Spirits.

[Below: the First Lady (Raquel Gonzalez, right), Second Lady (Summer Hassan, left) and Third Lady (Corrie Stallings, center), go about the business of killing evil serpents, among other duties; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]


Iowa soprano Raquel Gonzalez was the First Lady, Egyptian soprano Summer Hassan was the Second Lady, and California mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings was the Third Lady. (Hassan and Stallings are also Gerdine Young Artists).

[Below: members of the cast assemble for the the finale of “The Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]


June Glover conducted with distinction. The opera, as with all OTSL productions, was sung in English.


I recommend this production for opera-goers seeking a well-sung, interestingly staged performance of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”.

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