Tampa Times reviewer Andrew Meacham wrote: An unconscious prince in a magical forest gets rescued by three witchy women who serve a mysterious queen. He soon returns the favor, rescuing the queen’s daughter with whom he has fallen instantly in love.
What’s not to love about this adult fairy tale immortalized by Mozart in The Magic Flute? That is the calculation of the St. Petersburg Opera Co., and the impetus for its massive effort to charm and delight with glorious singing. As with most productions here, ambition literally creeps up the walls, starting with the endlessly inventive ways maestro Mark Sforzini finds to conduct his orchestra in a Palladium Theater that has no pit. In this case, musicians number among the trees, their overture briskly establishing the light and appealing tones of Mozart’s final opera, one replete with joy and mythic symbolism.
Todd Wilander makes for an able lead, primarily because his tenor shoots to the balcony of the theater with masterful control and timbre. The princess Pamina, soprano Lara Lynn McGill, complements that vocal virtuosity while excelling in a level of interpretation and feeling that completes the score.
Meanwhile, stage director Michael Unger holds nothing back, announcing a bold style in the opening moments with the entrance of a giant serpent with whom the prince does battle. Three magical ladies kill the beast, then take the prince to the Queen of the Night. Kelli Butler adds a critical leg to the casting as the queen, culminating in a jaw-dropping coloratura performance of one of the most difficult arias ever written, Der Holle Rache (The Revenge of Hell).
A well known fact that nonetheless bears repeating is that both Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto, were Freemasons. This opera, which premiered just two months before his death in 1791, might constitute his most religious expression, being stocked with Masonic symbols, notably the number three — the three women in the forest, three other female spirits, and musical passages built around three chords or three stanzas. On his journey, the prince is captured by henchmen of an enigmatic brotherhood, who take him to a temple with three doors and a gigantic triangle center stage.
As its leader Sarastro, bass Matthew Anchel undergirds the spirit of this benevolent cult in O Isis und Osiris, his aria to the gods they worship. His is a rich, mellifluous sound that also combines exquisitely in a trio with Wilander and McGill. Baritone Keith Harris delivers subtlety and richness as Papageno, the endearing birdcatcher, in his opening aria and later in a despairing scene when he is on the verge of suicide. In between, he supplies most of the comic relief, a necessary element in a show that lasts over three hours.
There are many spoken passages in the opera, which highlight the fact that opera singers are generally do not make the most accomplished actors. This production goes for laughs whenever possible, which sometimes works (the serpent gag, for example) and at other times doesn’t (a grating and overlong sequence with an screeching elderly woman in a cowl, later transformed into Papagena, most ably sung by Stephanie Jabre).
But whichever way these ornaments of production hang, it is still about the music. And with strong leads, a very solid trio of ladies and a stirring brotherhood chorus, this Magic Flute plays the right notes.