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Opera Should Be Spectacle

I went and saw The Magic Flute at the Santa Fe Opera last night.  While Flute doesn’t rise to the level of Don Giovanni, I truly love much of the music, and the charm of the fairy tale story liberally dosed with Masonic imagery. 

The last time I saw Flute at Santa Fe the set had a giant dragon, giant Egyptian temple, the Queen of the Night entered on the top of this enormous rolling platform surrounded by flashing lighting, and rolls of thunder.  The three boys had a little magical flying boat thing, when Tamino plays the flute a bunch of little kids dressed up like bunnies and frog, and turtles came on stage with him, drawn by the music.

Last night they went minimalist to the extreme to the detriment of the experience.  The set was basically bare with an occasional set of steps, or long table, and sliding doors that were highlighted using only the lights.  The lights had to do everything — suggest the trials by fire and water, suggest the Queen of the Night.  It was almost as if the director and set designer were arguing that nothing should take away from the music, but that’s a mistake.  Opera is a giant mishmash.  It’s singing and orchestra, and sets and costumes, and many even have a ballet stuck in the middle.  Opera is supposed to be “grand”.  It’s even called grand opera.

The other really weird thing were the costumes.  It was a smorgasbord of different styles and periods.  The Queen of the Night and her ladies were in Elizabethan drag, with the Queen herself in snowy white.  Not exactly an image of night.  Tamino had on tall boots and dark slacks, and a breastplate which later got lost so he just wore a white shirt.  Pamina looked like she’d escaped from a production of West Side Story.  My companion said she was only missing the poodle on her skirt.  Papageno was dressed in high top yellow tennis shoes, blue jeans and a red tee shirt with a chicken on it, and a gimmie cap, and when they bring him something to eat it was a Quarter Pounder in a McDonald’s bag and a can of beer.

Sarastro and the priests of the temple were all in powdered wigs, and brown 18th century garb, and the temple guards were wearing grey military greatcoats, and Monostatos looked just like Heinrich Himmler in a black uniform and great coat,  with a pistol, and little wire rimmed dark glasses.  And the three guardian spirits — the boys were in saffron yellow Buddhist robes with little bald heads.  I guess the point was that the underlying message of peace and brotherhood should reach across all times and all nations.

The singing was glorious, particularly the woman singing the Queen of the Night, and talk about odd — the tenor was buff, actually kind of ripped at the end he’s down to his slacks and a tee shirt, and the guy had been pumping iron.  It’s one of the things I like about Santa Fe, they cast people who can not only sing, but who are attractive.  They also choose to do the spoken dialogue in English, which was in line with the idea of a comic opera for the masses.  This was sort of hilarious at times because Pamina and Sarastro were both Italians, with thick accents, and when you added in the that deep bass baritone possessed by Sarastro, plus his size — he was enormously tall and broad — he sounded like Andre the Giant.  The baritone singing Papageno was southern or doing a really good job of putting on a southern accent.

I’m glad I saw it.  I love the experience of live music, and it brought back all those times I sang Pamina’s arias in concerts, but it wasn’t Opera as it’s meant to be experienced.  Now I’m terrified about what they are going to do to Madam Butterfly.

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