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A Flute for All

Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
01/30/2015 -  & February 1, 4, 7, 14, 2015
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Zauberflöte, K. 622
David Portillo (Tamino), D'Ana Lombard (First Lady), Megan Samarin (Second Lady), Carolyn Sproule (Third Lady), Michael Sumuel (Papageno), Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night), Aaron Pegram (Monostatos), Nicole Heaston (Pamina), Morris Robinson (Sarastro), Hannah Haw, Brooke Camryn Caballero, Eden Nielson (Three Spirits), Patrick Carfizzi (Speaker of the Temple), Pureum Jo (Papagena)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Spano (Conductor)
Ian Rutherford (director), Bob Crowley (set and costume designer), Nick Chelton (lighting designer)

D. Portillo, N. Heaston (© Lynn Lane )

The Magic Flute was intended to be a visual and vocal surprise, and Houston Grand Opera's current production delivers on both counts. This is a vivid, modern and thoroughly enjoyable affair. Sung in a tasteful English translation, the opera newbie will find this an excellent introduction to the artform, while the production standards are high enough to delight the seasoned operagoer.

The visual design is simple and impressive. A grand wall frames the action and can be split by a thunderbolt, the remnants of which act as an omnipresent reminder that we are in an enchanted world. The cast are dressed in finely-detailed costumes that don't dote on detail but accurately represent the dynamics of their individual characters. Papageno's costume is not a bouquet of plumage as in some productions, but a tasteful disguise that allows Michael Sumuel's excellent facial expressions to align with his superb vocal delivery, making his scenes consistently memorable.

K. Lewek (© Lynn Lane )

Rightly renowned for her Queen of the Night, Kathryn Lewek brought the house down with her two big arias, effortlessly tossing off coloratura and possessing a depth and evenness of tone from top to bottom. She effectively channeled Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the East, creating the perfect villain we can't help but love. David Portillo was vocally splendid as Tamino, and gave off an infectious youthful optimism. An HGO Studio artist in the 1990s, Nicole Heaston was warmly welcomed back to Houston and gave a superb account of Pamina. Her voice is creamy, fully-formed and flexible and her amorous interactions with Portillo were wholly believable.

Some of the smaller male roles were good if lacking in certain regards. Morris Robinson had great presence as Sarastro, but the imposing voice lacked the last bit of nuance that can make this role more complex. Aaron Pegram was an appropriately devious Monostatos, but his singing was rhythmically insecure, and Robert Spano visibly had to struggle to keep Pegram in sync with the orchestra in Act II's "All feel the joys of love."

Spano was in excellent control of the opera throughout. The overture's mystical opening pillars were given ample space to breath, while the ensuing fugal exposition was crisp, the strings and winds delightfully pointing up the offbeat accentuations. The choice of soft mallets for the timpani gave the score a top-heavy feel that was alleviated when the trombones entered with their ritualistic incantations. Papageno's special pipe and bells were excellently rendered, as were the eponymous magical flute solos. The HGO chorus delivered excellent blend, diction and rhythmic acuity, especially in their contributions in Act II.

In all, the performance was a delight from downbeat to double bar. Mozart's quirkily infectious opera remains fresh and surprisingly prescient, especially when given a youthful, effervescent performance such as this.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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