“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”
This is a quote from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” a book many of us remember from childhood, not least of all because of the dark, heavily stylized illustrations. Imagine such Sendak illustrations from childhood as the set design for a performance of the Washington National Opera.
Just such a situation confronts viewers of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” currently playing at the Kennedy Center, as these atmospheric illustrations represent the chaos of night and ignorance.
By contrast, scenes depicting enlightenment and reason are represented by Masonic symbols such as the hour-glass, trowel and square and compasses. The emblems, as well as Masonic aprons, are intended to remind us that Mozart was a Freemason and that he wrote the opera with deliberate references to Masonic philosophy in mind.
The two unlikely individuals who make the transition from darkness to light through trial and error are Tamino and Papageno. Tamino, played by tenor David Portillo, is noble, brave and ready to embark on a quest for greater knowledge and wisdom.
Papageno, played by baritone Michael Adams, is the exact opposite: straightforward, worldly and embarking on the quest with great reluctance!
There are attempts to thwart them by Monostatos, the wicked Temple servant played by David Cangelosi, and the Queen of the Night, portrayed by soprano Kathryn Lewek. Both represent irrationality and intolerance.
Musically, the opera starts early on with a strong note featuring one of its most notable pieces, “The Birdcatcher am I,” sung brilliantly by Adams as Papageno. “Men Who Feel Love” is sung memorably by Papageno and Pamina, the opera’s “damsel in distress” who is sung by the powerful soprano voice of Sydney Mancasola.
“Isis and Osiris” and “In This Holy Temple” are sung majestically by bass Wei Wu, who enacts an authoritative but compassionate Sorastro, priest of the Temple. “A Maiden or a Wife,” sung earnestly joyfully by Adams, gives musical expression to Papageno’s worldly desire to marry and settle down to a comfortable life.
Elaborate scenery is used in this production, which is directed by Christopher Mattaliano with Neil Peter Jampolis as the set designer.
A charming but outdoor setting à la “Where the Wild Things Are” is employed during Papageno and Papagena’s meeting. Impressive sets showing the Masonic Temple flanked by sun and moon symbols are used in the final scene, which is particularly strong in this production. The 18-century costumes designed by Sendak himself give the show an enlightenment period flavor, as often costumes are used suggesting remote antiquity.
The one question this reviewer had in this production was the decision to present this opera in English instead of its original German using surtitles.
On the one hand, this makes “The Magic Flute” highly accessible for the audience, especially in an opera with an enormous amount of spoken lines – so much so that this opera (or more technically, Singspiel) goes in the direction of the operetta or even the musical.
Yet for the singing, a translation can throw off the rhythm in a couple of phrases and simply has a different, unfamiliar sound for those used to the original German. The production is so strong, however, we relegate this to a minor point, one which is really a matter of individual preference.
We can do little better than end this review by returning to Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” in which we read: “There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.” It indeed describes the uplifting ending of Mozart’s magical fairy tale. “The Magic Flute” can be seen at the Kennedy Center, through Nov. 23. For more information, please visit Kennedy-Center.org.