Review: Perfect Game – Gunn, Shagimuratova Shine in New Kaneko-Designed “Magic Flute”, San Francisco Opera, June 13, 2012

On June 13, 2012, Pitcher Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants pitched the 22nd perfect game in the 137 year history of major league baseball, the feat taking place at San Francisco’s AT&T Ball Park against the Houston Astros. A couple of miles to the West, at the War Memorial Opera House, another perfect game was taking place simultaneously – a new production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” designed by Japanese-born sculptor and artist Jun Kaneko.

[Below: Three Ladies (from left to right. Renee Tatum, Lauren McNeese and Melody Moore) slay a dragon that had threatened to kill Prince Tamino (Alek Shrader, on ground in front; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photo, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

There, the San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley who had perfected his own game in Houston, took the mound as librettist (in collaboration with the opera’s debuting Scottish conductor, Rory McDonald) for a hip new English translation of Mozart’s operatic fantasy.

Mozart and the Vernacular

Gockley has noted that supertitles have transformed and generally benefited operatic performance. This is evident to all of us who have studied the course of operatic performance over the past few decades. Prior to World War II it was quite expected that performances of French, German, Italian and Russian operas would have casts that specialized in only one language. Now the great international singers are expected to sing in all of these languages and more besides.

There are decided advantages to the contemporary linguistic catholicism, but it comes not entirely without cost.  One of the arguable supertitle “negatives”, as Gockley infers, is that some operas – including “Magic Flute” – contain large sections of spoken dialogue of a language which the singers do not speak fluently, or may not speak at all. And Mozart (and his librettist Emanuel Shikaneder) believed that the words being sung should be comprehended by the audience in attendance, especially when those words are sung by a character like Papageno.

Obviously, language coaches can help the singers get the sounds of the original language right and supertitles help the audience grasp the meaning of what is being sung. For some operatic stories it doesn’t even matter that much, but for “Magic Flute” Gockley (and myself) believes it does.

It’s probably not well understood these days just how rare it was for opera in the 17th and 18th centuries (outside of France) not to be sung in Italian. In fact, one could argue that Mozart was a true pioneer of the idea of opera sung in German.

“Zauberfloete” was Mozart’s second major effort at creating a work in German, the Austrian vernacular language, rather than in the foreign Italian. Mozart’s first major work in that vernacular, “Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail” (which we translate as “The Abduction from the Seraglio”) – the most popular Mozart opera during the composer’s lifetime – was Mozart’s entry in a geopolitically-motivated contest devised by the Austrian Emperor to create a new operatic form in the German language.

Birdcatcher and Star-flaming Queen

The decision to perform a new production in English meant that the most famous member of the cast, superstar lyric baritone Nathan Gunn, was unleashed to do what he does best, to connect with the opera’s audience. Playing the opera’s character who best exemplifies the human qualities most of us would identify with, Gunn brings not only his smoothly lyrical vocal qualities, but superb timing, his sense of humor, and affecting rapport with any audience he stands before.

Gunn’s skills are such, that were he singing Papageno’s role in the original language, a person unfamiliar with German likely would have related to Gunn’s performance even without glancing at the supertitles. But when Gunn sings in English, he brings his long experience in interpreting the meaning of every word he sings, be it German lieder, standard hits from American musicals, or artsongs and folksongs.  [As an example of a recent English language performance of a San Francisco Opera co-production to be seen later in San Francisco, see: Team Zambello Shows off “Show Boat” to Chicago’s Lyric Opera – March 14, 2012.]

He makes performing Papageno seem so natural and so easy, but one can sense that behind all that Midwestern charm is skill, study and regimen.

[Below: Nathan Gunn as Papageno; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The other character that can make a performance of “Flute” especially memorable is the Queen of the Night. Here Uzbekistan-born Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova (who also had ties to Houston through Houston Grand Opera’s young artists’ training program) made a spectacular impression on the San Francisco Opera audience as she has elsewhere (see my review at Shining L. A. Opera “Magic Flute” on Sunny Matinee Day – January 11, 2009) with her two great arias.

As conceived by stage director Harry Silverstein, she is less the Evil Queen than a mother understandably upset at her daughter’s forcible kidnapping. [Sarastro and his men would have found little sympathy from California law enforcement or its law courts.] Exuding a softer than usual image, and brilliant coloratura technique, Shagimuratova’s Star-blazing Queen became an instant San Francisco favorite.

[Below: Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen of the Night; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Notes on the Production

Thus, with a new libretto in English, and colorful sets and costumes designed by Kaneko, a magical new way of presenting the elaborate fairy tale was launched.

At moments, most dramatically during the opera’s famous overture, lines, spots and shapes appear and weave themselves into continuously changing and absorbing projections, reminiscent of the abstract patterns in certain sections of Disney’s movie Fantasia, although contemporary in color patterns.

[Below: Heidi Stober (front left) as Pamina and Alek Shrader (front right) as Tamino; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The remaining cast members was a mostly American group of artists, on whom I have reported previously. Alek Shrader’s breakout role so far has been in a Britten comedy [see Countdown to the Britten Centennial: Conductor James Conlon, Director Paul Curran in Reverential Mounting of Britten’s “Albert Herring” – Los Angeles Opera, February 25, 2012] that he has performed at the Santa Fe Festival and Los Angeles Opera.

As Tamino, this San Francisco Opera-trained former Adler Fellow, has rather fewer opportunities to show the range of his talents, but sang nicely. It is, of course, an honor to be asked to perform the Prince Charming lead tenor role on the opening night on what is certain to be an important, long-lived  production.

Heidi Stober’s Pamina was yet another demonstration of the ascending career of this lyric soprano, who has been impressive in several distinct styles I’ve seen her perform, from Handel (“Xerxes”, “Radamisto”) to Massenet (“Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010) to Puccini (David Lomeli, Ana Maria Martinez Shine in Deeply Cast “La Boheme” – Santa Fe Opera, July 2, 2011).

[Below: the court of Sarastro; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I had looked forward to the return of the Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson, whose King Marke and Baron Ochs I had so admired over a half decade ago [see S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007 and The Runnicles, Hockney “Tristan” in S. F. – October 22, 2006]. I’m not convinced with Sigmundsson’s apparent tentativeness low in the staff, that the role of Sarastro, notable for its descent into the lowest notes in the basso range, is the right part for his re-integration into the company.

On the other hand, Greg Fedderly’s Monostatos and David Pittsinger’s Speaker were highly creditable performances. The youthful high male voices singing the roles of the three genii were Etienne Julius Valdez, Joshua Reinier, and John Joseph William Walsh. Chorister Christopher Jackson was the First Priest, and Adler Fellow Joo Won Kang the Second Priest.

The Two Armored Men (Beau Gibson and Jordan Bisch), covered in very prickly metal,  had other duties in this opera beyond merely guarding the entrance to the endurance tests required of Tamino and Pamina, including the arrest and punishment of Monostatos. Their duets, thought by many to reflect the style of operatic writing that Mozart would have pursued had he lived, is always a high point of the opera for me.

In what will be one of most enduring memories of this fascinating production, Gunn’s Papageno, paired with the Papagena of Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra, produce their offspring (first a Papageno, then a Papagena, then another Papageno, etc.) as little chicks right before our eyes, as a final hilarious Kaneko masterstroke.

[Below: Papageno (Nathan Gunn) and Papagena (Nadine Sierra) hatch six of their chicks right before our eyes; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Thoughts on the Evening

I am sure there are members of the audience, that had they known a perfect game was to take place at AT&T Park would have traded around their opera tickets for baseball seats. (As with almost everyone else in the world, I’ve never attended a major league perfect game – although as a next best thing, I, as a college student did attend the game in which the San Francisco Giants’ Juan Marichal pitched a no-hitter against – yes, Houston), but I do believe the new production at the opera was nonetheless a very special evening for San Francisco.

The Jun Kaneko production of the Magic Flute, as a co-production with the Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Opera Carolina obviously has many performances already planned  by the collaborating opera companies over the next few years. But this is the type of innovative production that will likely be performed in many parts of the U. S. and the World for a much longer period of time. The artists who participated in this first night, and the audiences that experienced it, will be able to look back with pride that they were at the War Memorial when the San Francisco Opera pitched a perfect game.

There are nine scheduled performances, the final two with Nathaniel Peake as Tamino. I recommend this new production without reservation.

For my interview with Nathan Gunn, see: Heartland Heartthrob: An Interview with Nathan Gunn, Part I and Heartland Heartthrob: An Interview with Nathan Gunn, Part 2.

For a review of another Nathan Gunn performance as Papageno, see: Conlon’s Magical Revival of Mozart’s “Flute” at L. A. Opera – January 10, 2009.