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A youthful Flute in Pittsburgh: Panikkar and Claire as Tamino and Pamina
© David Bachman 2014
For Act I of Pittsburgh Opera's Die Zauberflöte (seen Nov. 9), Myung Hee Cho's engaging set evoked a play-within-a-play in a theater not unlike that of Emanuel Schikaneder, where the opera had its premiere in Vienna in 1791. It was a pleasant conceit that worked well with Jen Nicoll's animated staging. In Act II, however, Cho abandoned her own idea in favor of a more ordinary, movable hedge that fleetly accommodated the libretto's several scene changes.
This was a youthful production, sung in Andrew Porter's lucid English translation (reinforced by supertitles), which highlighted the opera's lighter side over its serious underpinnings. Even the fire and water scene was handled by colorfully costumed dancers representing — quite unthreateningly — the elements of the trial. In the same vein, conductor Antony Walker favored brisk tempos and kept the orchestra from overpowering the mostly young voices. In contrast, chorus master Mark Trawka made the choruses of the priests into the evening's more thoughtful segments. With the exception of Layla Claire's lovely-to-look-at Pamina, the principals were all past and present resident artists, with chorus members filling out smaller roles. No big stars here, but the large cast functioned well as a theatrical ensemble, while the quality of the singing ranged from merely adequate to world-class.
In the world-class category were the two romantic leads, Claire and her handsome Prince Tamino, tenor Sean Panikkar. Panikkar took top vocal honors, establishing himself early on with a sweet-toned, elegantly phrased portrait aria that could stand up to the best of today's competition. His penetrating sound and regal demeanor were well-paired with Claire's luscious singing and innate dignity, capped by a tender, technically adroit rendition of her Act II aria. When the two came together in "Tamino, mine … Pamina, mine," they proved themselves mature Mozarteans of a high order.
Audrey Luna's Queen of the Night had the expected agility for the role, along with a sound that gained in strength and fullness the higher she sang. If her portrayal lacked drama, it was partly because of ineffective staging, especially in Act I. The staccato high Cs of her iconic vengeance aria generated excitement, and all four high Fs were right on the mark. At the lower end of the spectrum, Oren Gradus's Sarastro boasted impressive low notes. His sound was sizeable but intermittently unfocused, and he missed the profundity of his two great arias, declaiming the translated words with monochromatic blandness.
Craig Verm, with less impressive vocal material but enormous comic flair, made the evening's most vivid impression as a Papageno full of life and energy. Moving with athleticism and mugging with unashamed glee, he used his light, lithe baritone to advance the character's satisfaction with his self-admitted human foibles. His Act I duet with Pamina was one of the evening's most touching moments, while his duet with Papagena (Meredith Lustig) was at once funny and appropriately sensual.
Jasmine Muhammad's gorgeous, plush soprano dominated the trio of the Queen's ladies (the other two were Samantha Korbey and Nicole Rodin), who acted in tight ensemble but were not invariably in sync with the orchestra. Inexplicably, the three spirits were enacted by bearded women, who produced a conspicuously adult collective sound. Joseph Barron's resonant delivery of the Speaker's recitative was an asset. And it was refreshing to have the racist aspect removed from Monastatos: Daniel Curran played him as an evil white man, infusing his vocal timbre with a tinge of oiliness and menace.
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