The Bronx Opera gives a lot of people a chance. The audience – to see great works of previous centuries; schools – with programs designed to woo children into this noble art form; and artists – by handing itself the obstacle of double casting its short runs. Ironically, it is a compact version of what opera is. Like Shakespeare, you don’t go necessarily to see Hamlet; you go to see Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet or Burton’s Hamlet or David Tennant’s Hamlet. Well, here is where you can see two interpretations of the same work.
Case in point: The Magic Flute.
The Magic Flute
By Erica Vasaturo and Fran Bacine
The well-remembered comment made by the Emperor in Amadeus is that Mozart’s work has “too many notes.” If so then it takes masters to make each of these abundant notes flow seamlessly into the other. Such masters can be found at The Bronx Opera, at 41 years and counting – the oldest opera company of its kind in New York. The Mozart in question is one of his most familiar – The Magic Flute.
The plot weaves around Prince Tamino who, through a series of trials, must win the hand of Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, from Sarastro and the Temple Elders. He is given mystical weaponry including a magic flute bestowed upon him by three of the Queen’s mystical minions. He is also given a comedic sidekick – of course – the bird catcher, Papageno, who joins the adventure in the hopes of getting more food and drink but gets much more than he bargained for … good and bad. The Quixotic pair, both stricken with silence at points, both battle darkness and supernatural forces at other points.
Ben Spierman directed this English language production with a subtle hand. He imbued last years’ Pagliacci & Impresario with a stark “ripped from the headlines” flavor but this production received subtle shades of then and now. His wink-and-nod form of updating with one hand and maintaining tradition with another is done here beautifully. Starting with Tamino, dressed like a 1930s movie serial adventurer in the scope of Indiana Jones or Flash Gordon, somehow lands in this secluded mountain range filled with dragons, mysterious robed worshippers, and a sorceress. Not to mention. Lions and tigers and bears… literally. By keeping all but Tamino in traditional garb, the sense of transporting him to a mystical realm was emphasized. His bits of shtick entwined with traditional staging were also refreshing. Musically, Michael Spierman was the true sorcerer, commanding a huge cast and orchestra (literally spilling out over the sides of the orchestra pit) through a sea of stunning orchestral accompaniment.
An excellent principle cast was led by Neal Harrelson as Prince Tamino. His sweet sound, towering presence, and mane of blonde hair made him the ideal adventurer – and of perfect contract to Jason Plourde’s channeling of the late Dom Deluise with a litany of facial expressions, double takes, and food sight gags as the lonely yet luxuriate bird catcher, Papageno. His own terrific tones made for a great pairing.
He was not the only humor injected into the opera. Helen Lyons, Leslie Swanson and Shirin Eskandani play the Queen’s mysterious envoys in perfect harmony and as three lusty maidens wanting Prince Tamino for their own. Noteworthy also is Laura Shofner as Papagena, the comic relief’s comic lover.
Ushering back to the Hollywood “witch” of the 1930s was Astrid Marshall as the Queen of the Night. Draped in black with towering headgear, Ms. Marshall was Agnes Moorehead with dashes of Margaret Hamilton. Her famed aria of the second act was well worth the wait. And to counter this dark force is her daughter, Princess Pamina, angelically sung by Alfonsina Molinari.
Two standouts within the production came from the supporting cast: Jorge Ocasio as Sarastro, High Priest of the Temple has easily one of the most powerful presences on that stage and his deep rich bass-baritone voice only secured that image. The Temple Priests had a very difficult job – here is where too many notes come in. There are long orchestral sections upon their entrances and filling the stage was the first order. Ocasio was able to do this with ease. Each stride or turn was energizing. The second is Leslie Tay as the manic Monostatos. Filled with nervous energy, Tay brought a sense of urgency to his role making him that much more captivating. Even standing behind the action looking on, he was a story unto himself.
Maintaining a classical venire is a double-edged sword. While the declamatory style one might expect to see in classical staging allows the artists to sing above the orchestra and project better into the house (purists that they are, The Bronx Opera does not employ microphones) not to mention creating some absolutely stunning stage pictures, it also drains some of the urgency from this mature fairy tale plot. The exuberant audience certainly didn’t seem to mind though.
The lighting by Jim Elliot was lovely. Subtle changes in color and area created a panoramic sense with an oil painting finish. Meganne George’s set design – simplistic use of moving fabrics and window panels depicting everything from the mountains to the dungeons – was well used in conjunction with Mr. Elliot’s lights. While Meg Zeder is to be commended for inspired color schemes and establishing a sense of time period, each temple elder seemed to be in a different pair of shoes and stockings. Sadly, the maidens’ chorus suffered from the same footwear issue but their costumes seemed to cover it better. The men’s chorus again suffered the double edge sword of performing in period. While they look compelling in the flowing robes, a certain posture must be displayed or the costume wears the actor.
The Spierman family and The Bronx Opera fight the good fight. Like Prince Tamino they must battle dragons and darkness with nothing more than beautiful music. The Bronx Opera’s dragons are a wretched economy and its darkness is the stereotype for which the Bronx has weathered for far too long. Yet through it all, they present top-notch work at magically low prices.
Here’s hoping nothing silences their voice.
The Magic Flute
By Robert Greene
At first glance, this opera seems very much the fairy tale. Dragons, bird-catchers, and secret societies battling sorceresses… but looking deeper you have an ancient tale harkening from ancient societal rituals. One might look upon this as an Iron John-style manhood trial amid pagan practices and beliefs.
We begin with Prince Tamino (Eapen Leubner), trapped in a mysterious mountain range occupied by ancients of all kinds – a Queen of the Night (Heather Hill) battling a secret fraternal order (and by now we all know which one Mozart was alluding to). The dashing Lindbergh lookalike, Tamino, is joined by a towering troubadour named Papageno (Jeremy Moore) whose love of wine, women, and song places him at Tamino’s side and in the face of danger. Needless to say, there is a damsel in distress (Katherine Wessinger), a great wizard-like leader of the fraternal order (Michael O’Hearn), three supernatural handmaids (Elizabeth Perryman, Paula Jean Rocheleau, Paula Roediger) the lusty henchman (Kennan Vasudevan) and a gaggle of spirits (The Bronx Highbridge Voices chorus).
Eapen Leubner and Katherine Wessinger as the Tamino and Princess Pamina were simply lovely together and powerful individually, displaying great stage presence and vocal strength; Heather Hill made the Queen of the Night a formidable figure with a genuine sense of realism within her otherworldly role. Adeptly avoiding stereotype or overdoing it as the role can suggest, she brought urgency and reality to her delivery. Progressive thinking in opera for sure. Michael O’Hearn was truly magnificent as Sarastro, leader of the order. His expansive frame was only dwarfed by a presence worthy of grand venues. And his deep basso tones were perfectly placed. But the real fun was Jeremy Moore as Papageno. Combining leading man looks with genuine comic timing and a superior voice made him worth the ride alone. His early exchanges with his lady love, Papagena (played with flair by Andrea Leyton-Mange) were like old English musical hall humor. And for the cuteness factor, the gifted children of Highbridge Voices appearing as sprites along with a herd of dancing animals did not disappoint.
It is the wise company that knows when simplicity and implication are the ways of design and The Bronx Opera is a wise company. Meganne George series of drapes and stained glass panels allowed us to believe we were on mountains or in temples or beneath castles. There was just enough to hold the hand of our imagination. Gentle hues amid romantic shadows, gothic midnight, lighting flashes, and even mystical auras were all brought to us by Jim Elliot. Meg Zeder’s beautiful color scheme and use of ancient versus present made for opulent costumes. This long piece moved briskly thanks to director Benjamin Spierman and assistant Nicole Lee Aiossa. Michael Spierman, the company’s founder and guiding force conducted the production including a larger than expected orchestra and full chorus to great success.
Many remain unaware of the great work of The Bronx Opera due to its off-the-path location(s). I was dragged to my first production last year by their ardent press rep. Now I am a fan. Not just because of what I see as consistency of professional standard but to revel in seeing promising young artists take an ancient form of art and carry it into this new century.
Today, we laud the large ensembles when they update and translate.
Well, uptown, The Bronx Opera’s been doing it for 40 years.