In a gratifying match of cast and content, the rising singers of San Francisco’s annual Merola Opera Program piped youthful fresh life into Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on Thursday, Aug. 4 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In the first of two performances, this handsome and fluidly mounted production yielded a Magic Flute agleam with the rush of first love and the giddy allure of sex, the opaque and sometimes terrifying mysteries of the adult world, and the rites of passage that bridge innocence and experience.
Watching and hearing a company of artists on the cusp of their own musical futures brought those values in Mozart’s sublime and ebullient score and Emanuel Schikaneder’s inventive if sometimes bulky libretto across the footlights in ways by turns spry and affecting, tender and tense. In a canny choice that turned the work’s extensive spoken text into an asset, the dialogue was delivered in lively vernacular English. The arias and ensembles remained in the original German, with English supertitles.
The evening got off to an enlivening start, with conductor Kelly Kuo leading a taut and dramatic account of the wonderfully wrought overture. Ian Winters’s projections — of a large rotating antique disc, fragments of language, and confetti-like shards of light — dawdled beguilingly across the various drops that served as both screens and portals for various exits and entrances. A sturdy three-dimensional door to the temple anchored Stephen D. Mazzeno’s set (courtesy of Opera Colorado).
The Magic Flute introduces its romantic male lead, Tamino (tenor Sahel Salam, singing with urgent, propulsive pressure), in the teeth of a crisis. Pursued by an unseen serpent, he passes out after the enemy is slain by three ladies who are promptly, erotically intrigued by the comely youth sprawled out in front of them in a silver jumpsuit.
Outfitted in big, puffy gowns and antler-like headdresses — Zandra Rhodes designed the elaborate and brilliantly colored costumes, first for San Diego Opera and executed here by Seattle Opera Costume Shop — Tamino’s saviors couldn’t get quite as physically flirty with his enticing body as they might have. But Adia Evans, Erin Wagner, and Veena Akama-Makia sang with insinuating vigor in their back-and-forth solos and precision harmonies.
The arrival of Tamino’s traveling partner, the bird-catcher Papageno (baritone Scott Lee), brought one of the evening’s strongest assets to the stage. Amusingly bedecked with jaunty long tail feathers, Lee used his supple voice, boyish innocence, and gawking double takes to make a direct connection with the audience. David Paul’s English dialogue gave Lee plenty of choice lines, which he delivered with pert panache. “Jeez, I thought everybody knew me,” he declared at one point, tossing in a reference to Kanye (West) at another. Lee was just as expressive in song, whether he was pining sweetly for a girlfriend or sparring with Tamino.
With director Gina Lapinski moving the action along smartly, this Flute unfolded in page-turning storybook fashion. The Queen of the Night (the glittering soprano Maggie Kinabrew) issued her coloratura plea for Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina (soprano Chelsea Lehnea, in a performance that warmed up to capture the character’s anguish and maturity). The predatory Monostatos (tenor Chance Jonas-O’Toole, in a slithery turn, his voice thin but nicely curdled) wriggled on and off. The high priest Sarastro (bass Edwin Jhamaal Davis, singing with sturdy solemnity, with some underrealized bottom notes) embodied the trials and quasi-Masonic rituals that dominate the second act.
Nothing in the evening’s latter portion could match Kinabrew’s stunning account of the Queen’s famous, revenge-maddened aria. Not only did she execute the vocal pyrotechnics with steel-hot precision, she did so in a verismo-scale act of pressing a knife into Pamina’s hands as a murderess-to-be. The aria brought the house down on Thursday. More importantly it raised the stakes of the action and made Pamina’s courage all the more heroic.
Not everything worked to perfection. The Three Spirits, normally sung by sweet-voiced young boys, got an over-the-top, hammy treatment by soprano Olivia Prendergast, mezzo-soprano Maggie Reneé, and countertenor Cody Bowers. But to be fair, this was a showcase for Merolini, in parts large and small.
Indeed, it was in the opera’s transporting ensembles and stirring choruses that some of this vital Magic Flute’s most memorable passages transpired. A listener could almost feel these young singers pulling for each other as they pulled together. The opera’s story is one of virtue rewarded and evil banished. In this case, as a thunderous ovation affirmed, everyone came out on top, with bright futures fanned out ahead.