When students take an unhackneyed look at a masterpiece such as "The Magic Flute," you lose a little and you gain a little. Yet in the case of BYU's production, you gain more than you lose in an unstereotyped rendition of Mozart's masterpiece that has quite a few high points.
First, there are enough high-quality voices to carry the work creditably, and every part is respectably attended to. Some are beautifully sung, notably the Pamina of Karen Marie Early, who has the vocal substance, lovely quality and support needed for the legato style of this difficult part. Her major aria ("Ach ich fuhls" in German) is smooth, firm, and clear of tone.Equally impressive is Veronica Lynn Hanson as the Queen of the Night, who clips off the coloratura in her vengeance aria with complete accuracy and authority. Peter Asplund's Prince Tamino is sincere in demeanor and sung in a fresh, clear voice, and Aaron Dalton displays dignity as the priest Sarastro, and a promising young bass voice of good depth and quality.
Few in an audience can resist the very human charms and weaknesses of the birdcatcher Papageno, and Jeff Nielsen sells his endearing songs in a big, attractive baritone, milking the part for all it's worth. His costume is funny, and for some reason his bare knees are funny. Rebecca Pyper makes the most of her little old lady transformed into the feathered, piquant Papagena.
The three ladies and the three spirits (boys in most productions) sing beautifully individually and collectively, and the Monastatos of Robert Baker is better sung if not so villainously acted as usual.
Musically this is a good "Flute," with Clayne Robison leading a serviceable small orchestra, well drilled and schooled in the style. Men's choruses come across vigorously, and the trios of the ladies and spirits are delightfully sung. And who can resist the tinkling of Papageno's magic bells, or the clear, steadfast tone of the flute in its many ethereal passages?
The one-unit staging of this production uses a set of stairs in amphitheater shape, with scrims and string sculptures in the background which work well as entries and exits, and give a timeless effect when well lit.
Though Mozart specified Egypt for his locale, one doesn't have an Egyptian feeling here. That's a weakness, because no sense of place is ever defined in the scene or costumes, which meander over the whole spectrum of time and place.
The priests look Egyptian, but the Queen and ladies look like a 1930s musical. Tamino seems to have stepped out of Grimms' fairy tales, and Pamina's costume looks German provincial, far too heavy and fussy and a big handicap for her to overcome. But the slaves and spirits of darkness do convey a fantastic effect.
Not, by any means, that all productions should be stuck with the Egyptian motif. "The Magic Flute" transplants with versatility to a number of locales, but once a theme is selected, all elements should point to that time and place.
A new translation has been made for this production by Clayne Robison, which works probably as well but no better than the existing ones. English is especially well served in this production, however, where real effort seems to have gone into being intelligible, and almost every phrase is clearly enunciated.
Having once got past the difficulties of the singing, "The Magic Flute" is a desirable work for student production, with its upbeat plot that focuses on overcoming tests and trials and its naivete, freshness and heartwarming qualities.
Neil Vanderpool's direction stresses those qualities, in a lively show that keeps things moving without a chance for boredom, and incorporates some very funny business. Some scenes are too busy, notably the ladies and the spirits; there is sometimes value in just standing still and singing. It's an interesting touch to have a kind of prologue showing Tamino's fears during the overture.