Madison Opera’s ‘Magic Flute’ offers audiences a wild, whimsical ride

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Great art transcends time and space, or so the muses tell us.

In writing his final opera, The Magic Flute, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart decided to take the muses at their word.

The audiences attending the two Madison Opera productions of Mozart’s workDie Zauberflöte in its original German – this past weekend at Overture Center certainly benefitted from the Austrian composer’s wild and often whimsical ride.

Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in 1791, a little more than two months prior to his death at age 35. It occurs in no defined time or space, making it the perfect vehicle for fertile imaginations.

Madison Opera
Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos and Amanda Woodbury as Pamina – Photo: James Gill

And then, of course, there is all that magnificent Mozart music, part of a body of work that included more than 600 compositions in the composer’s short life span.

The fairy tale opera, which opens with a dragon, is rife with allegory and symbolism. Its narrative is marked by the struggle between light and dark, good and evil, reason and superstition, and male and female forces at work on young Prince Tamino (tenor Andrew Bidlack) and his fair lady Pamina (soprano Amanda Woodbury). There is magic, multiple spirits and more than a passing nod to the Freemasons, of which Mozart himself was a member during the last seven years of his life.

The opera is done in singspiel (literally “sing-play”), a form of German light opera popular in the 18th century that featured sections of spoken dialogue interspersed with singing. Helmed by stage director Dan Rigazzi, the Madison Opera’s performers spoke in English but sang in German, with the English translation appearing in supertitles over the stage.

With so many moving parts, one could reasonably expect the production to collapse under the weight of its own precociousness. But Rigazzi’s steady hand tamed the narrative’s unbridled spirit, and the Arizona Opera Company’s marvelous scenery, props, projections and costumes rented for the Madison performances brought its vivid storybook qualities to life in a production as pleasing to the eye as it was to the ear.

Madison Opera is known for the quality of its performances both musically and visually, and this production was no different. Members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor and Mozart interpreter Gary Thor Wedow, offered their usual fine musical support of the vocalists, several of whom were truly remarkable.

As a comic opera, Mozart knew that some of the performers would be better known for their acting skills than their singing chops, particularly the roles of Papageno (Alan Dunbar) and Monostatos (Scott Brunscheen). Their vocal parts are first stated by strings and then doubled by the instrumental line to help keep the performers on pitch and well-supported. While appreciated, such musical underscoring wasn’t necessary for Dunbar and Brunscheen, who performed their roles admirably.

Madison Opera
Alan Dunbar as Papageno – Photo: James Gill

Mozart was more demanding of the opera’s virtuosi roles, particularly the winged Queen of the Night (soprano Caitlin Cisler), the mother of Pamina. She was called on more than once to hit high F notes, unusual in any opera, and did so flawlessly. Conversely, the high priest Sarastro (bass Nathan Stark), the queen’s moral counterpart, was forced to a very low F2 on several occasions, providing an interesting counterpoint in musically describing the play’s good-and-evil equation.

But for many, the production’s visual style may be the most memorable. On a stage dressed with oversized picture frames and video backdrops that seethed with storms and fire, the opera’s performers were dressed in a variety of period costumes, with several cast in a steam-punk style. Somehow and in some way, this colorful cacophony proved effective throughout the production.

In fact, past production designs for the opera have featured the work of everyone from Impressionist artist Marc Chagall to Maurice Sendak, author/ illustrator of the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. Distinctive though their designs may have been, it’s unlikely that either design matched the full-blown whimsy of Madison Opera’s production.