Review: HGO's Magic Flute Has Great Singing But Not Much Else

Houston tenor David Portillo shines as Tamino, but production and conducting are lackluster.

By Sydney Boyd February 2, 2015

Morris Robinson, Sarastro; David Portillo, Tamino; Nicole Heaston, Pamina; Members of HGO Chorus and Supernumeraries

The Magic Flute
Thru Feb 14
Brown Theater
Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave

In Mozart’s beloved 1791 opera, a magic flute helps rescue a beautiful princess. Houston Grand Opera’s The Magic Flute, an English-language production originally created by the English National Opera, boasts exceptional singing but little else. Too bad a second magic flute didn’t arrive to save it.

The opera opens with a mad struggle between Tamino, a dashing prince, and a serpent. Three mystical ladies who serve the Queen of the Night swoop in to save him. When Tamino meets the Queen, she asks him to save her daughter, the princess Pamina. The Queen’s nasty adversary Sarastro has kidnapped Pamina, and if Tamino succeeds in his quest, the Queen promises that Pamina will be his bride. Accompanied by the Queen’s trusty (if a little misguided) bird-catcher Papageno, Tamino sets out armed with a magic flute, magic bells, and three guiding spirits. But nothing in this magical realm is not as it seems: The Queen of the Night is not the grieving, pathetic mother after all, and Sarastro’s motives prove to be governed by truth, wisdom, and virtue.

Houston-based tenor David Portillo (whom we profiled in our Fall Arts Preview last October) makes a stunning HGO debut in the role of Tamino. His voice is golden, thick, and remarkably pure. Playing his princess Pamina, soprano Nicole Heaston matched Portillo in robustness but sounded a bit too complex for the innocent, girlish role.

As the infamous Queen of the Night, Kathryn Lewek also makes a first-rate HGO debut in a role that has become her signature. The Queen only has two arias, but both feature difficult flourishes and treacherous high notes. Audiences know and love them well. Lewek began powerfully, her voice soaring with pitch-perfect accuracy. Also notable was bass-baritone Michael Sumuel as the jester Papageno and, as Sarastro, bass Morris Robinson, who has a voice that sounds larger than life. Robinson, whom HGO audiences will recognize from his performance earlier this season as Lodovico in Otello, has become a name I’m always thrilled to see on the program. 

Michael Sumuel, Papageno

But there is more to opera than good singing. Friday’s performance was wanting from the moment conductor Robert Spano raised his baton. The overture—another deeply beloved piece of Magic Flute—was ragged, languid, and unbalanced. Spano conducted without energy or inspiration, as evidenced in part by the dragging tempos throughout the opera, particularly in Act Two.

Designed by Bob Crowley, who also making his HGO debut, the set and costumes lacked a cohesive vision. During certain scenes, a faux-marble wall cracked down the middle, accompanied by an unfortunate electronic lightning sound effect. I suppose this bit of stagecraft was meant to signal an interruption of reality but it just seemed corny. Other production elements included things like a forest of what looked like green panty hose draped over a tree. I’m still not sure what the Queen was standing on in her first reveal. A collection of red, boa-draped batons glued to a platform? Music stands decorated with feathers?

The Magic Flute flits through fantastical worlds and offers wonderful opportunities for fanciful designs. Instead, Crowley seemed to take a list of Magic Flute themes—hieroglyphics, 18th-century Europe culture, and Masonic traditions—and throw in a miscellany of feathers, wide bustles, and wigs. This hodgepodge vision culminated in a quartet of romping bears fit for furry fandom.

In a resounding feat of overcoming adverse visual conditions, lighting realizer Michael James Clark lit the stage supremely well, richly emphasizing the talented singers. Truly, it was beautiful work. If well-lit, world-class singers are what you look for in an opera, this one’s for you. Otherwise, not so much.



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