Mozart’s music, fine cast win out over distractions in PBO’s “Magic Flute”

By Lawrence Budmen

Matthew Polenzani is Tamino in Palm Beach Opera’s concert performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

As Palm Beach Opera general director David Walker was making his opening remarks prior to Sunday afternoon’s presentation of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a noisy airplane flew over the iTHINK Financial Amphitheater. Walker ad-libbed “I brought the planes.” 

Indeed the noises from planes, traffic and the surrounding area were constant throughout the performance but the beauty and eloquence of Mozart’s valedictory operatic masterpiece remained undiminished. A cast of outstanding singers and deft direction managed to convey much of the joy of this unique singspiel conflation of vaudeville comedy and Masonic ritual.

The afternoon got off to a slow start with a reading of the famous overture marked by undernourished string sound and unbalanced brass which tended to overwhelm the ensemble. How much of that was due to the covered amphitheater’s amplification system or to conductor David Stern’s orchestral coordination was difficult to gage. Stern set a vigorous tempo for the curtain raiser but the opening scenes tended toward lethargy. About midway through Act I, his pacing picked up speed and sparkle and the remainder of the opera was expertly contoured and the singers well supported.

Matthew Polenzani was a top-tier Tamino. Wearing a business suit and tie, this prince was noble in both voice and bearing. Polenzani’s fine lyric instrument has grown in strength and power. (The title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo is on his agenda for the Met next season.) He can still spin a dulcet line and “Dies Bidnis” was sung with melting beauty and eloquent phrasing. Polenzani exhibited heroic force in his confrontation with the Speaker guarding the temple’s gate and his duets with the Pamina of Janai Brugger were perfectly balanced in timbre and vocal coloration.

Janai Brugger is Pamina in Palm Beach Opera’s The Magic Flute.

If Polenzani dominated the production, Brugger was not far behind. Her sweet, shiny soubrette and engaging theatricality previously lit up the stage in PBO productions of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Pasquale. Yet she also brought dramatic weight when required. “Ach, ich fühl’s” was heartbreaking, so emotionally expressive was Brugger’s projection of Pamina’s sadness when she thinks her lover has abandoned her. She stood up to the advances of the evil Monastatos with spunk, her textual clarity matched by adding grit to her attractive sound.

Kathryn Lewek has made a specialty of the Queen of the Night and she was fully equal to the daunting role’s demands. This Queen was downright scary. Lewek’s fierce declamation was several times larger and more frenzied than most singers who attempt the role. She sailed through the high roulades of “Der Hölle Rache meinem Herzen” with fearless assurance and garnered one of the afternoon’s biggest ovations. 

Joshua Hopkins was the personality-plus Papageno with the muscular baritone to make the bird catcher’s scenes crackle with comedic life. From his outrageous outfit to his lilting versions of Papageno’s arias, he was the day’s scene-stealer.

Peixin Chen’s sizable bass and stern rectitude encompassed the Masonic ruler Sarastro. Warm, voluminous and solid down to the lowest notes, Chen’s version of “O Isis und Osiris” was outstanding. Ryan Speedo Green intoned the Speaker’s narrative with grave severity, his dark bass impressive in depth and solidity.

Matthew DiBattista’s agile character tenor was virile and incisive in Monastatos’s scheming machinations. When faced with Papageno’s ringing chimes, he pranced about the stage with delightful vivacity. After removing her covering as an old lady, Patricia Westley was a sexy Papagena, duetting to enchanting effect with Hopkins.

Moisés Salazar and Christopher Humbert, Jr were the vociferous Armored Men. As the Queen of the Night’s Three Ladies, Shannon Jennings, Jenny Ann Flory and Jennifer Johnson Cano  were musically scrupulous and effective ensemble partners. Emily Helenbrook, Sarah Ann Duffy and Megan Callahan were the bright-voiced Three Spirits.

One missed entrance apart, the chorus under director Greg Ritchey sang with fullness of volume, security and heft as priests and members of Sarastro’s kingdom. Stern’s fleet finale effectively brought choral and instrumental components together in a celebratory declaration of the triumph of good over evil.

James Robinson’s skeletal staging, utilizing colorful platforms, managed to bring out the opera’s fantasy and drama without detracting from the concert format. Despite the tricky performing conditions on a cloudy, chilly day, much of Mozart’s musical splendor was well served.

Palm Beach Opera repeats The Magic Flute 7:30 p.m. Friday at the iTHINK Financial Amphitheater, 601 Sansburys Way in West Palm Beach.

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Mon Feb 22, 2021
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