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Revival of Mozart’s Final Opera Provides a Pair of Welcome Debuts

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
09/09/2003 -  September 9, 12, 18, 20, 24, 28, October 3, 2003
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Zauberflote
Charles Castronovo (Tamino), Ana Maria Martinez (Pamina), Johannes Martin Kranzle (Papageno), Suzanne Ramo (Queen of the Night), Paata Burchuladze (Sarastro), Twyla Robinson (First Lady), Elizabeth Bishop (Second Lady), Heather Meyers (Third Lady), Dennis Petersen (Monostatos), Philip Skinner (Speaker), Nils Olsson (First armored man), Gregory Stapp (Second armored man), Marnie Breckenridge (Papagena), Michael Bannett, Bryan Jolly, Jordan King (Three Boys), Todd Wilander (a priest), Colby Roberts, Scott Patton, Daniel Harper (Three Slaves), John Owens, Tom Reed, Jere Torkelsen (Three Priests)
Conductor – Oleg Catani/Donald Runnicles (9/24, 28, 10/3)
Stage Director – John Cox

When it became apparent that the San Francisco Opera could not open the season as planned with a reportedly spectacular production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or, the company substituted Mozart’s Die Zauberflote in the familiar David Hockney production see here on three previous occasions.
Whatever regrets the opera company and its public may have about not being able to include the Rimsky-Korsakov opera in the season’s offerings, there was little to regret and much to enjoy in this season’s Die Zauberflote. Strong performances from several of the principals, a well-rehearsed staging (at least by the time this reviewer saw the production late in the run), and authoritative leadership in the pit from the company’s Music Director, Donald Runnicles all contributed to a rewarding, satisfying evening with one of Mozart’s most challenging operas.
Director John Cox got the balance of dramatic elements just right with a light touch for the comedic elements and a simple sincerity for the serious scenes. Hockney’s production holds up well, although some of the scenes appear just as drab and uninspiring now as they did when the production was new in 1987. The animals that Tamino charms when he plays his magic flute steal the scene as shamelessly now as they ever did, but it is one of the whimsical elements of the production that works just right.
Likewise, Runnicles conducting maintained the same delicate balance of elements on the musical side of the production, providing plenty of bounce and wit when called for, but giving the opera’s stately, noble moments their full due. With tempi on the quick side overall, the pacing never felt rushed or pushed and Runnicles appeared to give his customary sensitive support to soloists.
In their company debuts, both Anna Maria Martinez as Pamina and Charles Castronovo as Tamino made welcome first impressions. Martinez sang with assurance and passion, never distorting the vocal line, but informing her singing with emotional intensity. Martinez looked striking on stage and carried herself with a poise and elegance befitting the role. Evenly produced throughout the registers, her voice has a warmth and fullness in the middle with a pure, focused top.
Castronovo was a fitting match for Martinez. He is appealing on stage, with a noble, youthful appearance and equally well-schooled vocal technique, allowing him to phrase Mozart’s vocal lines with ease and finesse.
Johannes Martin Kranzle brought a refreshing approach to the role of Papageno. Rather than playing for broad, obvious laughs whenever possible, Kranzle played the bird catcher as a simple, earthy, child of nature. There was still plenty of humor in his performance but it occurred as an organic aspect of the character and not as a cheap ploy for laughs. Kranzle’s singing was also simple, direct and perfectly in step with the character Mozart’s score creates.
Suzanne Ramo’s Queen of the Night got off to a rocky start with an underpowered “O zittre nicht”. It didn’t help that she was upstage and too much sound was dispersed before it crossed the footlights. But that did not excuse the smeared coloratura and tentative sounding performance. Her vengance aria in Act II went much better, not only because she was further downstage, but she sounded much more characterful, confident and the coloratura was far cleaner. She was able to squeak out the high E’s and F’s the role requires, but her top is not her strength and she seemed an odd choice for the role.
When he first appeared with opera companies in the 1980’s and early 90’s, Paata Burchuladze seemed to hold great promise as the next great Slavic bass. His voice is rich, powerful and capable of great expressiveness. However, he seems to have failed to follow up his early success with artistic fulfillment and his Sarastro in this production was problematic at best. Marred by poor German, sloppy musicianship and unreliable pitch, his singing ranged from adequate to disappointing. His presence further suggested a general disregard for the role’s demands. Burchuladze shuffled about on stage with a casualness completely at odds with the regal bearing the role demands. Indeed, both Philip Skinner as the Speaker and Gregory Stapp as the Second armored man had much more presence, both vocal and physical, than Burchuladze.
In supporting roles, all three Ladies, Twyla Robinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Heather Meyers, displayed superb ensemble singing and delightful involvement in the drama. Marnie Brekenridge was irresistibly charming in her brief appearance as Papagena, making on wish the role was larger, even at the end of a long evening. And the three boys, Michael Bannett, Bryan Jolly and Jordan King were most impressive, their pure slender tones carrying easily and blending beautifully.
Whatever regrets the company and its audience may have about not having a chance to experience the Rimsky-Korsakov opera, there was plenty to savor and appreciate in Die Zauberflote this time around.

Kelly Snyder



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