Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute: That’s Entertainment and More


OperaGene’s quick take:

  • WNO’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte in German) is a delightful evening’s entertainment, achieving an effective comedic presentation while also engaging important deeper themes.

  • The opera is an allegorical comedy composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with an original libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, suitable for both adults and children.

  • Sets and costumes designed by children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak are a treat in themselves.

  • The opera is sung in English with projected titles in English, and the cast is excellent overall.

  • The WNO Orchestra and the chorus are outstanding, giving full measure to Mozart’s fabulous music.

  • WNO’s production plays until November 23; performances run slightly over three hours including a twenty-five minute intermission.

David Portillo in the role of Tamino. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

David Portillo in the role of Tamino. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Prince Tamino is chased by a serpent into a magical realm where he is befriended by bird hunter Papageno, whose interests are finding a good meal, a good glass of wine, and a wife.   The prince is shown a picture of Princess Pamina and falls in love with her.  He begins a quest with Papageno’s help to find and win her with the support of her mother, the Queen of the Night, and her agents.  The queen seeks the return of her daughter who had been captured by a brotherhood, the enemy of the queen.  The opera mines the nature of the quest and its enchanted landscape for comedic effect and takes on a more serious dimension when the Pamina and Tamino encounter the brotherhood, and Papageno encounters Papagena. 

kneeling l to r : Michael Adams as Papageno and David Portillo as Tamino.  Standing :  l to r  the three ladies, Alexandria Shiner, Deborah Nansteel, and Meredith Arwady. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

kneeling l to r: Michael Adams as Papageno and David Portillo as Tamino. Standing: l to r the three ladies, Alexandria Shiner, Deborah Nansteel, and Meredith Arwady. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

A friend once told me as I was just starting to listen to opera that The Magic Flute was a crazy story, but Mozart’s music was great.  My response to previous viewings has been colored by that assessment, and I have not taken the story very seriously.  WNO’s production succeeded in showing me how much more is contained in this story.  Though Flute can simply be enjoyed as an amusing fantasy with great music, its story is highly meaningful on several levels.  Mozart died ten weeks after the premiere of The Magic Flute.  He sensed before his death that his time was running short.  He joined the Freemasons, a group misunderstood and mistrusted by the general public, in an effort to come to terms with the great questions of life.  His was the Age of Enlightenment, the triumph of reason, and Mozart was a leader.  The mysterious Freemasons and their lodges were under close surveillance at that time by an Austrian monarchy feeling threatened by the shock waves of the French Revolution.  Mozart worked with his librettist Schikaneder, also a Mason, to develop an opera to entertain the masses, not just the nobility, and at the same time, present the order of Freemasons, not so named in the opera, as benign men of high purpose, dedicated to truth and virtue and the equality of all men.  Flute’s fantasy has drawn varied interpretations and meaning from many creative storytellers since its premiere, including early poet/dramatist Goethe, who started but did not finish a sequel to the opera, to the more modern film maker Ingmar Bergman who made a movie based on the opera.

l to r : Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the night and Sydney Mancasola as Pamina. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

l to r: Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the night and Sydney Mancasola as Pamina. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Because Flute is a fantasy set in ancient times with ancient gods and is meant to both be funny and to astound with stage effects, there is great latitude in how it can be presented and many creative artists have given their time to this effort, including a beloved presentation at the Met using Julie Taymor’s puppets a few years back.  Maurice Sendak worked with the Houston Grand Opera for a 1980 premiere to create scrims and sets that aligned well with his illustrations for Where the Wild Things Are.  Scenery design for WNO’s production is realized by Neil Peter Jambolis based on Sendak’s designs; he also served as lighting director.  I found the sets and scenery to be a delight and work exceedingly well with the fantasy of The Magic Flute.  Christopher Mattaliano’s direction is clear and crisp and moved things along well, but one issue I have with several of Mozart’s operas are scenes that are overextended, running on too long, and Flute certainly has some of those.  Those moments are typically sustained by Mozart’s great music, but Saturday night I found that the good feelings and interest elicited by Sendak’s designs, and the way they are used to tell the story, made the overlong scenes seem to pass more quickly.  It was neat that Jambolis and Mattaliano have been with the production since its inception and appeared on stage for the round of applause at the curtain.

l to r : David Cangelosi as Monostatos, Sidney Mancasola as Pamina, and Michael Adams as Papageno. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

l to r: David Cangelosi as Monostatos, Sidney Mancasola as Pamina, and Michael Adams as Papageno. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Conductor Eun Sun Kim and the WNO Orchestra gave a very pleasurable reading of Mozart’s music and the entire production was enhanced by excellent choral numbers directed by Steven Gathman.  One thought I had as I sat there was how much I would enjoy hearing Maestro Kim direct a large on-stage orchestra playing this music.  Masonic symbolism can even be found in the music; attend the pre-opera talk to learn about this.  I tend to think that opera sung in English is not the best sound, but the poetry and rhyming in Andrew Porter’s English translation for Schikaneder’s libretto works beautifully with Mozart’s music, and being able to understand the spoken sections in this singspiel (recitatives are spoken not sung) without resorting to the overhead supertitles was a great relief to my neck; in fact, there are no supertitles for the spoken dialog in WNO’s production.

Wei Wu as Sarastro. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Wei Wu as Sarastro. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The Magic Flute uses a lot of singers and Mozart provides the lead singers with great arias.  There is Tamino, Papageno, the Queen of the Night, Pamina, and Sarastro, leader of the brotherhood, in principal roles, plus in critical supporting roles, the three ladies, Monostatos, Papagena, Speaker, and three spirits as well as others.  There are twenty-four performers named in the program book; all contributed positively to the performance.  Not only that, but Flute productions tend to recast many of the same performers.  Tenor David Portillo who sang the role of Tamino was a standout Saturday night with a beautiful voice and singing; he will head to the Met to sing the same role later this year.  Soprano Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night showed an impressive coloratura, exciting and somewhat edgy in the aria we all wait for, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”; she will also be going to the Met to sing the same role.  Soprano Sydney Mancasola has a lovely voice and an appealing lovestruck manner as Pamina, a role she has sung previously at the Met.  Baritone Michael Adams gave us a funny, pleasing Papageno; he is a former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist and a veteran of the past several WNO seasons.  Bass baritone Wei Wu sang the role of Sarastro with clear diction and a pace filled with gravitas the role called for; he is also an alumnus of the Domingo-Cafritz program.  Tenor David Cangelosi, also a WNO veteran, sang well and was a comic delight as Monostatos in his lecherous pursuit of Pamina.  Soprano Alexandra Nowakowski was also a charmer singing the role of Papagena, though having her appear oversized as well as aged was a questionable directorial choice, given the current controversy over body shaming in opera.  In a brief stint, bass Kevin Short gave us an eloquent cautionary Speaker.  I will only further mention the three ladies sung by Alexandria Shiner, mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel, and contralto Meredith Arwady, all previous WNO performers.  At first, I worried about their harmony, but they grew on me quickly to the point that I was disappointed when their time on the stage was done.  Lastly, as a group, kudos for the beautiful sound and singing provided by the three spirits sung by two groups of young boys and girls that will rotate among the performances.  The entire cast contributed to a wonderful performance.

A closing scene in the brotherhood lodge. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

A closing scene in the brotherhood lodge. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The Magic Flute is a much more remarkable and meaningful opera than I have previously realized, and WNO’s production checks all the boxes for success with the added pleasure of Maurice Sendak’s design of the set and costumes.  All of this, of course is supported by Mozart’s great music.  I just read a quote attributed to theologian Karl Barth to the effect that when the angels play music for God, they play Bach, but when they play music for themselves, they play Mozart.  Sendak was himself a huge Mozart fan, and angelic music is just fine with me.

The Fan ExperienceAdditional performances of The Magic Flute are scheduled for November 6, 9, 12, 15, 22, and 23.  The opera is performed in English though written in German and English supertitles are projected as well.  Additionally, there is a ticketed “Family Look-In” presentation on The Magic Flute scheduled for 1:30 pm on November 23, which provides an introduction to opera for children (ages 5 and up) with excerpts of Flute to be performed by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. There is a pre-opera talk one hour before performances given by Ken Weiss, Principal Coach for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program; I found the background information and insights such as the role the number three plays in the music to be helpful. 

For the sake of my neck, I personally wish that WNO would make plans to switch the titles to back of the seat viewing, such as the Met and the Santa Fe Opera use.  I again took the subway to Foggy Bottom where the Red Kennedy Center bus was waiting on 23rd street at the subway exit, by far the least stressful way to attend events at KC. My wife again made the dash from Reston leaving work at 6 pm and found smooth sailing on this trip.