The Magic Flute, Mozart's last and perhaps most well known opera, is a time-honored tale about a handsome prince who is commanded to rescue a beautiful princess from the menacing hands of the High Priest of Isis. The prince's worthiness is put to the test on a journey where a magic flute, an unwilling sidekick, Thor-like ladies, and sprightly spirits are his unlikely companions.
Sung in its native language, German, with English dialogue, the story is woven together with the help of a narrator and his family, who take us on a wonderful "virtual reality" adventure. The format is somewhat unconventional for an opera, but works well in this presentation because of the cast's ability to use facial expressions and body language to help us interpret the unfamiliar lyrics.
Kudos go out to visionary stage director Geoffrey Edwards, who creates an ethereal atmosphere with interesting lighting variations and nine ever-moving, billowy draperies. With the simple set, highly detailed costuming, colorful characters, and unbelievable sounds, he transports the audience to a fairy-tale world - where the pageantry still exists and the ways of virtue and wisdom rule.
As the curtain rises, Prince Tamino (Jonathan Dyrland) engages in battle with an elaborately costumed dragon. Disciples of the evil Queen of the Night, The Three Ladies, kill the dragon and charge the prince with the task of rescuing the beautiful Princess Pamina. They join forces with Papageno (Curtis Oelschlaeger), a bird-brained bird lover who is more interested in finding a wife and a good glass of wine than rescuing a princess.
Oelschlaeger's comedic delivery is only trumped by his buttery tenor voice, and he harmonizes well with Dyrland's sharpness, especially in their scenes with the Three Ladies. Erin Lounsberry, who makes her professional opera debut in the role of the First Lady, has a strong soprano voice that is impressively matched by the Second (Debra Austin) and Third (Elizabeth Duhr) Ladies. Their playful sparring throughout the show adds a light-hearted dimension.
The female soprano leads - the evil Queen of the Night (Kelly Holst) and Pamina, the imprisoned princess (Susan Lamberson) - stand larger-than-life. They shine in their respective roles, delivering an incredibly difficult German score with a vocal richness and clarity that's reminiscent of old Memorex commercials.
Perhaps the greatest display of vocal expertise came from City Opera Director Mark Elliott in the featured role of the high priest Sarastro. His hauntingly deep baritone voice displays enormous control and range, and commands respect from everyone. Eerily benign "henchmen" (of which Lionel Marcoux plays Second Priest) have excellent voices that provide a strong contrast to Elliott's imposing voice.
Elliott also serves as the father/narrator of three "spirited" children (Carolyn Gillman, Adrienne Nelson, and Carolina Warren-Collison) whose melodies, with their exacting softness, complement those of the rest of the cast.
The performers we don't see - the 22 musicians in the orchestra pit (under the direction of Jessica Paul) - add tremendously to the quality of the show, too. There are moments during the performance when instrument and voice seem to become one. The orchestra's exuberant (and sometimes overshadowing) performance is a fitting tribute to a composer who died before he could appreciate this success of his masterpiece.
Following in the footsteps of one the greatest collaborations in operatic history (Mozart as composer and Emmanuel Schikaneder as storyteller), this production of The Magic Flute is also a success. It was a massive undertaking by a relatively young arts organization. A packed and appreciative audience spoke by giving The Magic Flute a standing ovation this past Sunday.
With the right combination of vocal talent and symphonic accompaniment (plus a few young dancers from City Center School of the Arts), City Opera Company shows us that good triumphs over evil and that opera in the Quad Cities is here to stay.
There will be one more performance of City Opera Company's The Magic Flute at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg on Saturday, January 17, at 7:30 p.m.