Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review: 'The Magic Flute'

Virginia Opera
Mark Russell Smith conducting
Nov. 22, Richmond CenterStage

Directors staging Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” should always ask themselves the WWESD question: What would Emanuel Schickaneder do?

Schickaneder, the impresario of a popular Viennese music hall, wrote the text for Mozart’s fanciful “song-play,” and created the character of Papageno, the bird-catcher and comic lead of the show. He liked his humor broad and a bit bawdy, and otherwise knew to keep his audience constantly engaged.

I think Schickaneder would have approved of Michael Shell’s stage direction of the current Virginia Opera production of “The Magic Flute.” It’s sung and spoken in the audience’s language, a vernacular American translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey. It’s peppered with pop-culture references, from the exclamation “Dude!” to bits of Gladys Knight & The Pips choreography, but lightly enough not to distract from the story or alter its never-never-land locale. That never-landishness is helped immensely by Driscoll Otto’s lighting effects.

The show’s principals are generally well-cast. Heather Buck is a hair-raising Queen of the Night. Matthew Plenk and Nadine Sierra have the tone, looks and seeming naïveté for the romantic leads of Tamino and Pamina.

David Pearshall doesn’t come across as doltish enough for Papageno, but he brings a fine voice and high energy to the role. Kenneth Kellogg’s Sarastro is commanding, but the role sounds to lie lower than his ideal range, at least to judge from under-projected low notes in the first of two Richmond performances.

The supporting cast is unusually strong. Amanda Opuszynski is an effervescent Papagena. Natalie Polito, Courtney Miller and Sarah Williams, as the three ladies-in-waiting to the Queen, have great fun with their parts. Anna Maples, Fran Coleman and Kristen Choi, as the three spirits (traditionally boys), look to have even more fun, scooting around on skateboards, a tricycle and other kids’ conveyances. Even the villainous slavemaster Monostatos, Ryan Connelly, romps through his role.

Virginia Opera’s chorus gets into the act more than usual, although the women in their flowing cloaks get most of the animation. The men, in the priestly vestments, mostly stand around.

Conductor Mark Russell Smith, returning to town for his first performances since relinquishing music direction of the Richmond Symphony four years ago, obtains brightly sonorous and warmly lyrical playing from the pit orchestra, composed of members of the Virginia Symphony – musically crowning a charming production.

The final Richmond performance of Virginia Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute” begins at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 24 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $18-$104. Details: (866) 673-7282;

The production will be staged at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 and 2 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Center for the Arts, George Mason University in Fairfax. Tickets: $44-$98. Details: (888) 945-2468 (;