Singspiel in the Subway

The Magic Flute Directed by David Prum Conducted by Theo Saye At Lehman Hall, April 24, 25, 26

MOZART'S MAGIC FLUTE, that innocently expansive, made-up fairy tale cut with slices of Masonic mysticism, is probably the most durable of all great operas: you could mount it in a barn or a basilica with equal success. It's such a hodge-podge of childish humor, didactic verses, and obscure allegory that no director's grand interpretation is likely to encompass its entirety. In his film version, Ingmar Bergman--no shirker from directorial complexity--paid tribute to the sufficiency of Mozart's music to bear The Magic Flute's inconsistencies; he presented a filmed record of a workmanlike, shoestring performance in a provincial opera house.

The Magic Flute, in other words, is more folk opera than grand opera, and in the absence of rigid performance traditions, each director can pretty much do with it what he wishes. And so David Prum's idea--staging the whole thing on a giant subway-entrance staircase, complete with fluorescent "Red Line" sign on top--in itself does no violence to the work. Nothing in The Magic Flute rules out this approach. But after three hours of characters scurrying up and down the stairs and rotating the structure on its metal-pipe supports, nothing emerges from The Magic Flute to give the approach any coherence or sense either.

Prum has a keen sense of the spectacular, but too often in this production, he seems to have selected images more for their oddness than their aptness. During the overture, he projects a series of slides showing Harvard Square subway construction scenes, and, along with the Perini Corporation sign leaning against the left wall and the hardhats worn by the stagehands, they suggest that the evening's theme is to be construction. But that's the last we hear of it. It's never explained or worked through, aside from the vague relationship between the secret society of Freemasons and the actual work of masonry, and the even vaguer relationship between Masonic ritual and parts of The Magic Flute--which Prum does not underscore, but parodies, giving his priests of Isis red-plastic horns to blow and coffee-can censers. Later, Prum projects photos of Widener to illustrate Prince Tamino's approach to the Temple of Wisdom.

The sense of disjointedness in the production grows as, halfway through Act I, some of the singers switch from the nicely intelligible English translation back to the German libretto. From then on, this is a bilingual performance--and if some scheme is being followed to determine when the singers switch from English to German, it's a well-kept secret. Perhaps they were flipping coins. By the middle of the second act, the show's pace has slowed to a crawl, the scene changes are lengthy, and the production which began in an explosion of striking images and ideas subsides into formless chaos.

I FELT DISAPPOINTED and unhappy observing this process, because the manifold flaws in Prum's Flute seemed to spring more from logistical problems, shortages of money, inadequate rehearsals, and the like, than from a hopelessly flawed conception. At moments, the subway-staircase flashed into sensibility--as, for example, a disheveled Papageno leered after business-suited women hurrying down the stairs. Somewhere in here there is a fascinating avant-garde Magic Flute piping away, waiting to be heard.


But even if this staging of the opera were somehow reworked into coherence, musical troubles would mar it beyond hope. I'm well aware of the difficulties in mounting amateur operatic productions: musicians are hard to come by, rehearsals are difficult to arrange, and there's no money to pay anyone for their time and hard work. And performing an operatic score is an effort of a different magnitude than, say, performing a symphony--the music not only has to be true to its own aesthetics but must also follow the contours of a dramatic performance.

But when you unveil a performance to the public, and charge money for it, a certain amount of competence ought to be expected--if not beautiful playing, at least the right notes: if not subtle interpretation, then spirited exuberance. I found myself wincing during this Magic Flute far too frequently for comfort or enjoyment at squeaky strings, raucously blaring horns, and botched entrances. The orchestra was situated in Lehman Hall's balcony, and--from the inability of singers and players to match their voices and notes--I can only assume that the singers were unable to see conductor Theo Saye.

These musical failures were doubly unfortunate because this troupe of singers contains some very fine voices. Of particular note were Daniel Pantano's Papageno, a chubby, winning baritone with plenty of playfulness: Barbara Morash's Queen of the Night, who traversed her role's Alpine vocal peaks of near-yodelling with good control and plenty of voice to spare: and the Three Ladies of Anne Johnson, Penelope Bitzas, and Deborah Harrington, a trio of ethereally beautiful voices. Everyone in the cast was at least vocally adequate for this small-scale production, and it was a shame to watch them so frequently look up towards the balcony as the orchestra left them stranded on the wrong bar.

AND SO another House production of an opera comes and goes, with flashes of visual and vocal interest but doomed by its own musical limitations. It leaves me wondering what it is that leads talented students year after year to assay the hopeless task of performing major operas in dining halls with hastily convoked orchestras, and I suppose the answer lies in the greatness of the works themselves. But next time perhaps a different approach to undergraduate opera is in order. Some enterprising director ought to yoke together several of the valuable resources available here to amateurs, like the Loeb mainstage and one of the two organized undergraduate orchestras, and have a go at producing an opera with forces suitable to the task.

It would, I think, be a valuable experiment for all concerned: too often the mainstage swallows up smaller-scale dramatic works that just don't suit its vastness; the Bach Society or the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra would, I hope, jump at the chance to perform challenging dramatic music; and singers and directors could only thrive with such collaborators. The American Repertory Theater has already made use of the Loeb for operatic works, and plans to do more. There's no reason why undergraduates shouldn't follow suit.