By Winnie Dreisonstok.
Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Kennedy Center is a Washington National Opera production directed by Christopher Mattaliano which moves the opera in brilliant transitions from simple to complex. From the very introduction, the orchestra, conducted superbly by Eun Sun Kim, is accompanied by visuals on the curtain in the illustration style of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are.” The sets and musical performance escalate to ever more complexities. The constant changing and altering of the backgrounds matches the opera at its climax when it presents the Queen of the Night and her train in fabulous Rococo costumes (sumptuously designed by Sendak) and the holy temple of the wise priest Sarastro with its complex Masonic symbolism of square and compasses, the sun representing reason and the moon representing the mysteries of night in beauty as well as peril.
…truly conveys the power of music and its magic notes.
The story of “The Magic Flute” itself combines simplicity with complexity. It is a fairy tale of a young man Tamino (portrayed here by impressive tenor David Portillo) on a quest to help free an imprisoned maiden Pamina from the supposedly wicked Sarastro at the behest of her mother, the Queen of the Night. Things are not what they appear, however, and Tamino awakens to the fact that Sarastro is a positive force for wisdom and enlightenment and the Queen of the Night represents irrationality and vengeance. Tamino voluntarily undergoes trials, such as the trial of remaining silent, in order to become a more enlightened human being.
Tamino’s companion is the bird catcher Papageno, who represents the less philosophic, completely sensual side of humanity. Absent for him is the desire for higher pursuits such as in the case with the prince; nonetheless, his simplicity and pure heart also enable him to be rewarded in life and reach his own ideal and happiness at the end: Papageno finds his Papagena. Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” especially in this production, contains many dynamic aspects of music, philosophy, and history itself which lead to new discoveries and insights with every performance of the opera.
The opera is replete with Masonic symbolism which is manifested not only in the music but also the background sets: the three chords (an important number in Masonry) are used throughout the musical performance and are accompanied by visuals of Masonic symbols of the sun, the moon, the hour glass, and the squares and compasses. Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were Masons, and Masonic references were intended in the opera. Those not exposed to Masonic philosophy might find this slightly obscure but at all events intriguing.
History is important to note as well: “The Magic Flute” was written in 1792, in the midst of the French Revolution during the reign of terror. Every time when I hear the piece “In This Holy Temple, Revenge is Unknown,” it always touches my heart deeply — this piece contrasts with all the chaos, irrationality, cruelty, and ugliness in the world, and bass Wei Wu does the aria full justice as Sarastro. Soprano Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night gives the Queen’s famous aria passion and urgency, and soprano Sydney Mancasola as Pamina demonstrates a powerful as well as beautiful voice in her poignant aria “I feel it, it is vanished.”
A delightful moment is beheld in the outstanding “Papageno-Papagena” duet by baritone Michael Adams and soprano Alexandra Nowakowski. Clearly, musical performers such as these convey the meaning of “The Magic Flute” to touch one’s heart, regardless of one’s familiarity with the philosophical, cultural, and historical background of the opera. As music is the most abstract yet the most tangible and direct communication of mankind to the ineffable, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in this production truly conveys the power of music and its magic notes.
Running Time: Three hours, with one 25-minute intermission.
Washington National Opera’s “The Magic Flute” performs through November 23, 2019, at The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or go online.