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Oper review: Los Angeles Opera’s “Magic Flute”

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A first-class cast of principals making their Los Angeles Opera debut transformed the company’s revival of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday into a welcome delight.

This was the 1993 Peter Hall co-production with satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, with colorful Egyptian-style sets and costumes rich in symbolism. It is marred, though, by its dressing the high priest Sarastro and his retinue as golden-gowned look-alikes topped with “Planet of the Apes” haircuts and the hero, Tamino, like a redheaded, red-gloved and red-booted waiter in a Russian-themed restaurant.

Still, Scarfe’s fantastical animals were wondrous to behold, and the supernumeraries who artfully enlivened them deserved something better than listing by name in the program credits. On this occasion, Stanley M. Garner interpreted Hall’s often-pageant-style direction with workmanlike diligence.

Matthias Goerne as the Speaker represented luxury casting. The German baritone sang with warmth, amplitude and generosity of tone, radiating the calm one would expect from a member of Sarastro’s enlightened religious order. It was this serenity that induced Tamino to take his first step away from callow certainty.

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Matthew Polenzani, winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2008 Beverly Sills Award, sang Tamino with bright, focused tone, but his acting seemed indifferent. Perhaps any emotional involvement he projected was suffocated by his costume and white-face makeup.

His beloved, Pamina, was Swedish soprano Marie Arnet. She brought poise, stature and poignancy to the role and revealed yet another element to the character by holding back momentarily in fear in the trial by fire.

As the bird-catcher Pagageno, Nathan Gunn, who last year made People magazine’s list of the “Sexiest Men Alive” (although his bird costume and pasty-faced makeup largely concealed the reasons), proved irresistibly sweet and vulnerable, deftly projecting a wealth of emotion. Amanda Squitieri was his peppery Papagena.

Slovak soprano L’ubica Vargicová sang the evil Queen of the Night with pinpoint accuracy, really sounding out her stratospheric high notes instead of merely squeaking them out in milliseconds.

Austrian bass Günther Groissböck made an impressive and sonorous Sarastro -- again, singing his bottom-barrel low notes rather than just approximating them by pushing his larynx down his throat.

Except for Goerne, these singers are alternating with another cast in the nine-performance run of the opera.

The Three Ladies, the evil Queen’s attendants, can be tiresome bores, but Tamara Wilson, Lauren McNeese and Beth Clayton made their every appearance delightfully comic without crossing over into camp.

Greg Fedderly managed to transform the waddling, potbellied, frog-costumed villainMonostatos into an improbable mix of menace, mirth and sympathy.

As the two Armed Men, Beau Gibson and Jordan Bisch voiced powerful tones out of their lobster-encasing costumes. Ryan Schiller, Stephen Cruz and Caleb Glickman piped gently as the three guiding spirits.

The chorus, trained by Grant Gershon, sang with focus and power. Michael Gottlieb followed Richard Pilbrow’s original evocative lighting design.

Unfortunately, there were frequent dead spots during the spoken passages, but that may be inevitable when the opera is presented entirely in German for an English-speaking audience. There were also occasional discrepancies between the original text spoken or sung by the cast and David Anglin’s politically correct English supertitles. That may be inevitable too.

James Conlon’s conducting was lyrical and fleet (the clock is always ticking at the opera). Still, the company’s music director managed to be flexible in phrasing, allowing some rubato to creep into lines and at cadences. Even better, he was ever considerate of the singers. He alsograciously acknowledged a fan in the audience who called out, “We love you, James Conlon,” before the first downbeat.

‘The Magic Flute,’ Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 16 and 17; 2 p.m. Jan. 18; 1 p.m. Jan. 21; 7:30 p.m. Jan 22 and 23; 2 p.m. Jan. 25. $20 to $238. (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com.

-- Chris Pasles


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