Detroit — Mozart’s allegorical opera The Magic Flute is often neatly categorized as a struggle between good and evil or a symbolic contrast between darkness and light.
But things aren’t quite so pat. If Sarastro is supposed to embody goodness and light, why does he have slaves in his service? And the Queen of the Night is often blanketly dismissed as wicked. Yes, she’s on a power trip, but when she vents her anger, it’s largely because Sarastros’ forces kidnapped her daughter Pamina. What mother wouldn’t be upset?
And the Queen’s Three Ladies rescue the opera’s hero, Tamino, from a serpent, so they can’t be all that bad, either.
But with a few exceptions, Michigan Opera Theatre’s (MOT) production of The Magic Flute, which opened Saturday night at the Detroit Opera House, doesn’t plumb the opera’s subtleties or explore the nuances in character. It’s an attractive production, with enchanting sets and costumes borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It looks and feels much like a fairy tale, which it is in part, but the opera is more complex than that.
There are bright spots, though, chief among them South Korean soprano So Young Park, a last-minute substitute for an ailing Christina Poulitsi, who was scheduled to have sung the Queen of the Night.
Not only was Park’s singing on the mark, she invested her portrayal with emotional intensity. In her first aria one could sense her heartbreak at her daughter’s absence. And in her second aria of vengeance, her fury was unleashed with the force of a Category 5 hurricane.
The Queen of the Night doesn’t have much stage time, but Mozart wrote for her some of the most excruciatingly difficult music that ever spilled from his pen. In her first aria, the soprano has to leap up to an exposed high F, and she has no time to warm up.
But then come the real fireworks in the second aria, in which she has to sing several staccato high C’s, then ascend to high Fs. It’s easy to fall off the tightrope performing such dazzling vocal acrobatics, but Park didn’t lose her balance. If a Queen of the Night is a little shy of the target on the F’s, it’s often forgivable. However, Park nailed her top notes with the accuracy of an eagle-eyed archer.
The young soprano was drenched with a shower of well-deserved bravos at her curtain call.
Also making their MOT debuts were tenor Joshua Dennis as Tamino and Sylvia Schwartz as Pamina, who went through their paces well but rather woodenly. One simply didn’t get the sense that this couple is in love; director Garnett Bruce needed to ignite a spark between the two of them. Dennis’ tenor can sound pinched at times, and Schwartz, although she has a relatively small instrument, nevertheless produced some luscious pianissimos.
Bass Jordan Bisch also made his MOT debut as Sarastro. Some of his notes are lower than a snake’s belly, but Bisch had a tendency to push down on his diaphragm to produce them.
As the ditzy bird catcher Papageno, Canadian bass-baritone was lively and possessed a good comic sense. No one else but Mozart could mix the sublime and the silly with such deftness. In her brief appearance as Papagena, soprano and Grosse Pointe native Angela Theis was charming.
The Three Ladies — Jessica Dold, Diane Schoff and Raehann Bryce-Davis — performed with vocal and dramatic unity. The Three Spirits — Melody Balos, Ryan Blankenburg and Noah Trudeau — sang with admirable tonal purity.
Conductor James Meena led the MOT orchestra competently, but one wished for a bit more vitality.
The Magic Flute is a singspiel, which means the dialogue is spoken, not sung. This production is performed entirely in English, but a nice compromise would have been to have the spoken parts in English and the arias sung in their original German, because much of the English translation was stilted and lacked elegance.
MOT’s ‘The Magic Flute’
■Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, downtown Detroit
■Repeats May 18, 21 and 22
■Tickets: $29-$149. 313-237-7464
■For information: michiganopera.org