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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: Vocals, dance enhance Opera Coeur d’Alene’s ‘Magic Flute’

Larry Lapidus Correspondent

This season’s second production by Opera Coeur d’Alene, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s popular “The Magic Flute,” or “Die Zauberflote,” brings to mind that, for all the time he spent in the palaces and drawing rooms of European aristocracy, Mozart thought of himself as a man of the theater, concerned with selling tickets, filling seats and pleasing an audience.

As artistic director of an opera company with these same goals, Director Aaron St. Clair Nicholson has looked beyond superficial changes in “concept,” so popular among current directors of opera. Rather, he vitalizes the theatrical experience by incorporating the element of dance, not present in the original, into this production. Dancers from Ballet Coeur d’Alene, choreographed by their director, Brooke Nicholson, represent the magical penumbra surrounding the words and actions of the characters. They not only clarify and comment upon the actions of the characters, but, by turning the overture into a balletic preview of the action, prepare the audience to experience “The Magic Flute” on several levels simultaneously: aesthetic, dramatic and philosophical.

Nicholson’s primary means of bringing an audience into the theater and delivering a great experience is traditional: to engage a talented group of singers and musicians to bring the piece to life. In the role of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night and predestined mate of the Prince Tamino, Anne Carolyn Bird displayed a lyric soprano of uniform beauty and beguiling color. One found it hard to imagine a more satisfying rendition of this role.

Her very significant other, Tamino, was portrayed by Vale Rideout, who took on a part commonly regarded as hopelessly stiff and breathed real life into it, while proving he is the rarest of commodities: a true Mozart tenor. While Rideout’s voice is capable of heroic quality, his beautifully controlled soft singing left the deepest impression.

The lofty pair of Tamino and Pamina are mirrored by the earthier, more fallible couple of the birdcatcher, Papageno, and his made-to-order bride, Papagena. In a way, Papageno represents the audience in the action: fond of the sensual, material pleasures of life, while longing fitfully for something loftier and more noble. It is essential, then, for Papageno to win our affection and hold our attention, and in this, baritone Matthew Burns was successful. He is so completely the master of his part that he can manage all its comic business without sacrificing beauty of tone and diction.

We encounter the third male-female duality of the opera (three is the magic number in “Die Zauberflote”) in the characters of the wise and all-knowing Sarastro and the envious and vituperative Queen of the Night.

One could look hard and long without finding a Sarastro more impressive than Jeremy Milner. It does not hurt that he towers over everyone else on stage, but it is even more important for him to project the quality of stern compassion the character is meant to represent. Milner captures this to perfection while negotiating Sarastro’s difficult vocal range with aplomb.

When seeking an example of a difficult vocal range in opera, the character of The Queen of the Night springs first to mind. Some noted sopranos have come to grief trying to essay its demands for both accuracy at very high pitches and flexibility in florid coloratura. Soprano Dawn Wolski, whose deeply affecting Gilda in the same company’s “Rigoletto” in 2013 is still a vivid memory, sailed over the rocks and crags of her two arias as though they hardly existed, while maintaining the dramatic intensity of her character and supporting the natural beauty of her voice.

There are a number of secondary characters in “The Magic Flute” who are nonetheless important to the action and vital to the success of a production. In this instance, they were all exceptionally well-performed. Special mention must be made of the vivid and resourceful Monostatos of Jadd Davis, the arresting vocalism of the First of the Three Ladies, Courtney Ruckman, and of Lise Hafso, whose performance as the First of the Three Child-Spirits perfectly matched the quality of a boy soprano Mozart must have had in mind.

The continued popularity of “The Magic Flute” is due not to its uplifting moral message but to the incomparable quality of its music, and the success of this production has most to do with the leadership of its musical director, Eckart Preu, also music director of the Spokane Symphony. Careful preparation of the smallest musical details was everywhere in evidence, from the balancing of voices in the orchestra with the voices onstage to the superb German diction throughout, notably by the chorus, to the stately but vigorous pacing of the whole of this inexhaustibly rich and sublime work.

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