We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Kara Sainz and Theo Hoffman (photo by Richard Termine)

Miles Mykkanen (photo by Richard Termine)

The most wonderful aspect of Mozart's operas, beside their glorious music, is their humanity. The singspiel that he wrote for his friend, the singer/actor/impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, is generally presented in all its mythic glory with elaborate costuming and sets. Many of these productions can be appreciated in the current exhibit at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts.

The production we saw last night at The Juilliard School was a production with another dimension. Gone were the fairy tale trappings of exotic sets and costumes, and, in their place, Director Mary Birnbaum gave us a human drama. We could identify with the universal psychological issues we face as we attempt to unravel the complexities of our existence and to evolve into more complete human beings.  This gave a new meaning to "enlightenment"--not just the 18th c. philosophical movement.

In Ms. Birnbaum's take on the opera, we witnessed real people, not cartoon characters, and not stereotypes. Tamino is not dressed like a prince but he evolves into a princely fellow, having earned the love of Pamina.  As sung by the incredibly sweet-voiced tenor Miles Mykkanen, he starts out as the helpless victim of...a row of hedges he takes to be a serpent! During the course of the opera he achieves menschheit by facing his fears during the trials. We witness his growth and cheer him on.

Pamina, perfectly portrayed by soprano Christine Taylor Price, must learn to accept the fact that her mother is flawed. She must integrate the "good mother" who wants to protect her and the "bad mother" who is possessive and filled with rage. She must learn to accept a father (or father figure) who loves her but has failed to protect her from the evil Monostatos and has placed her in a virtual prison. Ms. Price did well at creating a character who moves from innocence and helplessness to a position of equality-- "standing by her man" as he goes through the trials.

Not everyone is cut out to be a spiritually enlightened person. In a star turn unlike no other, baritone Theo Hoffman represented "Everyman". He wants his food, his wine, and his woman. His life has no meaning otherwise. His Everyman is not one to which one condescends; this is an Everyman to love; he is an Everyman who makes the world work. Mr. Hoffman revealed impressive comedic skills, utilizing flexibility of body and mobility of facial expression to get this across. . His task in life is to learn honesty and modesty. He learns that from the Three Ladies who also serve the Queen of the Night.

That role was wonderfully filled by coloratura soprano Liv Redpath whose top notes gave us chills by virtue of their clear ringing tones and pinpoint accuracy. The Three Ladies were performed by two superb sopranos (Alexandra Razskazoff and Caitlin Redding) and mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau whose smoky voice is completely distinctive and entirely memorable.

One of the funniest scenes was the first one in which these Three Ladies fight over the limp body of Tamino who has fainted from fright.

We loved the way bass Önay Köse created a Sarastro who was anything but pompous. He projected the air of a leader who was entirely human and not at all ecclesiastically boring. His voice rang out with power and authority.

As the wicked seducer Monostatos, handsome tenor Alexander McKissick had a hard time convincing us that he was "hässlich" but easily convinced us of his evil intentions toward Pamino. He had her imprisoned in an off-kilter underground bunker, reminding us of all those stories in the news about men who kidnapped young girls and kept them for years as sex slaves. We were quite relieved when she was rescued and Monostatos got punished! Tenors don't usually get to sing the bad guy and Mr. McKissick sang it very very well.

Mezzo-soprano Kara Sainz as Papagena was the perfect partner for Mr. Hoffman's Papageno. Not only was her singing excellent but she created a charming character who was totally convincing as an old lady climbing onto Papageno's lap, trying to convince him to marry her--one of the funniest moments of the evening.

The Three Spirits were adorable and harmonized just as finely as did the Three Ladies.  Dressed as schoolgirls in uniform, they represented the innate and instinctual wisdom of youth which contrasted well with Sarastro's hard-won rational wisdom. Christine Oh, Sophia Kaminski, and Kelsey Lauritano gave wonderfully physical performances.

Sarastro's crew of followers, dressed in suits, seemed to be a no-nonsense lot. Bass-baritone Thesele Kemane was excellent as The Speaker. Baritone Fan Jia and tenor Matthew Swensen made important contributions as First and Second Priest respectively, while tenor Samuel Levine did equally well as The Armed Man.

Ms. Birnbaum made sure that all the characters related to one another as people. That is one of the benefits of having a group of artists who know each other and can work well as an ensemble. It enabled so many moments of emotional depth and so many moments of humor. This could never happen at The Metropolitan Opera with stars flying in from all over the world!

The sets by Grace Laubacher were said to have been inspired by Joseph Cornell and his boxes. Indeed, they were boxlike and punctuated by doors down low and windows up high. Birds were flown from the balconies, Japanese-style, delighting the audience.

Anshuman Bhatia's lighting emphasized the difference between the darkness of the Queen of the Night and the light of Sarastro's temple.

Costumes by Maria Sine Clinton comprised streetwear for the most part but we were dazzled by the masks worn by the beasts who were tamed by Tamino's magic flute.

Choreography was shared by Adam Cates and Sean McKnight. The wildly successful break-dancing was performed by Jakub Jozef Orlinski who has delighted our ears with his angelic counter-tenor and here dazzled our eyes with his astonishing dancing. Now we know!

The singing was so fine all around that we decline to single out any one artist. The Juilliard Orchestra never disappoints; under the baton of David Stern they filled the Peter Jay Sharp Theater with glorious sound. During the overture, Maestro Stern's firm control allowed us to distinguish the emphatic chords and their progressions. We could hear things we'd never noticed before in the play of the strings against the winds. Totally wonderful!

(c) meche kroop

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