Opera review: ‘Magic Flute’ Provides Spellbinding End to Nashville Opera Season

Flute 1The Magic Flute provides a spellbinding end to a marvelous season for Nashville Opera.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s singspiel (literally “sing-play”) celebration of fantasy, romance and masonic values for the masses remains highly popular nearly 222 years after its Sept. 30, 1791, Vienna premiere – in fact, Operabase statistics show it’s currently the fourth most-produced opera in the world. And Director John Hoomes has waved his fun-loving wand over this high-production-value entertainment that also sports splendid voices and acting.

Flute 11Emmanuel Schikaneder derived the libretto for The Magic Flute from a heady potion of sources. His ingredients included Jakob August Liebeskind’s story “Lulu, oder der Zauberflöte” (“Lulu, or the Magic Flute”) that came from a collection of oriental-flavored fairy tales in the 1786 book “Dschinnistan,” and Phillip Hafner’s 1763 play Megara, the Terrible Witch.

Liebeskind’s story provided the basic plot; the Hafner play supplied some of the fantasy; and ritualistic and ancient Egyptian elements were drawn not only from the fraternal order of Freemasons but Jean Terrasson’s 1731 novel “Sethos.” These sources and a good dollop of Enlightenment philosophy spurred the storyline, but of course it’s not necessary to know that to enjoy this opera – it’s just amazing that so much can be distilled into a show that’s enjoyed even in this age by all ages, as was the case at Tuesday’s well-received dress rehearsal.

Flute 5Hoomes has placed his principals, ensemble and supernumeraries on an Andrew Jackson Hall stage filled with Troy Hourie’s imaginative and commanding sets originally built for Sarasota Opera. Add the lighting wizardry of Barry Steele (along with colorful, flamboyant costumes designed by Marie Anne Chiment and Sondra Nottingham’s always-on-the-money wigs and makeup) and the playing space is beautifully alive with The Magic Flute’s make-believe world.

Like many contemporary US productions the lyrics are sung in German while the dialogue is spoken in English. That can be jarring in less capable hands, but not here; and throughout it all Conductor Andy Anderson leads Nashville Symphony in an exuberant journey through Mozart’s richly varied score.

Flute 18Taking parts of that score soaring to the heights is soprano Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night. Her “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” (“O tremble not, my dear son”) comes complete not only with deftly deployed coloratura but one of the most powerful “F” above high “C” notes one is ever likely to hear; Lewek’s rendition of her character’s “revenge aria,” “Der Hölle rache” (“The wrath of Hell boils in my heart”), was so dazzling at the dress that the audience (and this reviewer individually) responded with well-earned loud cheers and applause. She will make her Metropolitan Opera debut on Dec. 28 singing the same role; those flocking to Lincoln Center then are in for a real treat.

Flute 22Two singers who made very favorable impressions in Nashville Opera’s 2009 presentation of the Philip Glass-Arthur Yorinks take on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher are back to fill the leading romantic roles of The Magic Flute with considerable artistry and poise. With his good looks and melodious voice tenor Vale Rideout has no problem becoming the gallant Prince Tamino; his Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” (“This likeness is enchantingly lovely”) firmly establishes his character’s young lover credentials. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan’s voice – which gives the despairing “Ach, ich fühl’s” (“Ah, I feel it, it has disappeared”) the poignancy that aria deserves – has a luminous timbre that any singer would love to have.

Flute 19Baritone Levi Hernandez returns after his sterling work as Sharpless in Nashville Opera’s Madame Butterfly earlier this season to delight us as Papageno. He is this opera’s male version of Ethel Merman, handling low comedy with ease while providing plenty of pipes (literally and figuratively) to his songs. It should be noted that he’s just as good with serious moments, though – his “Bei Männern, welche liebe fühlen” (“In men, who feel love”) duet with Zetlan’s Pamina is indeed the thing of beauty it should be. Hernandez defines the term “complete performer” each time out.

Flute 13Bass-baritone Keith Miller (whose fascinating and eclectic background includes playing fullback for the University of Colorado football team along with pro stints in the Arena Football League and Europe) scores as Sarastro in his Nashville Opera debut. “O Isis und Osiris” (Oh Isis and Osiris) and “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (Within these hallowed halls) provide us with plenty of evidence that Miller possesses great command of mood and moment along with a strong yet supple voice that conveys benevolence and authority with equal grace.

Flute 15Rounding out a superb cast are tenor Gregory Spock as the nefarious servant Monostatos, sopranos Denisha Ballew and Mary Scheib with mezzo-soprano Caitlin McKechney as the Three Ladies, soprano Kristina Bachrach as Papagena and baritone Ted Federle as the Speaker (additionally, I’d be remiss to leave out the fine Three Slaves – Aaron Velthouse, Josh Ritter and Billy Dodson – as well as the Three Spirits produced by Emily Apuzzo, Laurel Fisher and Rachel Nyetam in this listing). Add the sure-fire Nashville Opera Ensemble led by Amy Tate Williams and the supernumeraries (which in this case includes some exceptionally cute animals) coordinated by Michael Rutter and Hoomes has once again shown his flair for exceptional casting.

The only regret about this Magic Flute is that it has just two performances. Then we must wait until October for Nashville Opera’s 2013-14 season to take flight. I’m counting the days.

Flute 20Nashville Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute opens today (April 11) at 7 p.m. and continues Saturday at 8 p.m. Saturday in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Andrew Jackson Hall (505 Deaderick St.). This opera is sung in German with projected translations and spoken dialogue in English; John Hoomes leads the free “Opera Insights” preview one hour before each performance in the theater. For tickets (starting at $21.50) and more information go to http://nashvilleopera.org.

*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).