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Music Academy of the West
As one of the most frequently performed operas, Mozart's Magic Flute has the potential to either bore or delight the avid operagoer, largely depending on the quality of the cast and the inventiveness of the presentation. Music Academy of the West's recent production in Santa Barbara, California, was mostly a delight, due to the strengths of its energetic young cast, though at times it was limited by a rather conventional and unimaginative staging.
The principal cast consisted of students from the Music Academy's voice program, which has been under the direction of Marilyn Horne since 1997. As Tamino, Andrew Haji showcased his a powerful and nimble voice, while Julie Adams was an appealing Pamina with a vibrant sound and engaging stage presence. As a crowd-pleasing Queen of the night, Claire de Sévigné effectively projected the grandeur and indignation required by the role. The standout of the performance of the night, however, was by John Brancy, a 24 year-old baritone who recently completed a graduate diploma at Juilliard and has already made his professional debut with Dresden Semperoper. Brancy's impeccable timing, dynamic physicality, and robust voice made him an ideal Papageno. Of the supporting roles, Emily Siar was a charming and memorable Papagena, while Sara Couden, in the often unremarked role of Third Lady, offered a powerful contralto that provided an unusually rich and resonant foundation for the trio of harmonizing women.
While the cast brought energy and life to the production, they often seemed to be working against a mise-en-scene that was generally dark and lifeless. The sets, by Charles Corcoran, primarily consisted of airbrushed backdrops, augmented with a smattering of three-dimensional pieces that seemed hastily assembled. While functional, the overall impression was one of frugality and flatness, and there were moments (most notably Tamino and Pamina's during final trials) that came off as utterly ham-fisted. The costuming by Stephanie Cluggish was more effective, particularly in some thoughtful details like the bird-cage "tattoo" that wrapped around Papageno's bicep. The stage direction by David Paul was nuanced and engaging—aside from the predictable stand-and-sing blocking for characters like Sarastro and his followers—and often provided a reassuring sense of humor to the production, as well as some welcome touches of whimsy (particularly apparent in the animal scenes). Paul was also credited with creating the text for the spoken dialogue (delivered in English) and the supertitles, both of which were in a playfully vernacular translation that appeared to be well-received by the audience.
The orchestra was conducted by the well-known vocal coach and collaborative pianist Warren Jones, a long-time member of the Music Academy faculty. Consisting almost entirely of students from the Academy's instrumental program—along with a guest concertmaster borrowed from San Francisco Opera—the orchestra provided a spirited and engaging rendition of Mozart's score.
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