Guided by voices

There's not much magic in this Flute.

SEATTLE OPERA GENERAL director Speight Jenkins deserves a great deal of credit for his imaginative casting; but with the current production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, Jenkins overdraws his credit, imagining that some of his favorite artists can sing roles for which they are manifestly unqualified.

The Magic Flute

Seattle Opera

Opera House through October 30

Flute is, in a word, a bitch to cast. The role of the mage Sarastro was written for the kind of how-low-can-you-go bass that has always been rare. Seattle favorite Gabor Andrasy looks great as a Masonic magus, but the bottom notes of the part just aren't on his instrument. The music of Flute's hero Tamino is cruelly hard, lying in the part of the tenor range most likely to strain the vocal cords. Paul Charles Clarke, who has sung presentable Rodolfos and Alfredos here, seems to have no control over his voice singing in German, producing sonorities from muffled to meaty to metallic, sometimes all in the same phrase.

Nathan Gunn presents the opposite problem. The birdcatcher Papageno is a low-comedy role requiring no more musical finesse than the average bathtub baritone's; Gunn sings beautifully and has as much comic sense as an IRS auditor. As the froggy villain Monastatos, Doug Jones clowns expertly but can hardly be heard beyond the ninth row.

Two singers in the show are actually suited to the roles they're cast in, but even they don't make the impression they should. Cyndia Sieden sings the hellaciously difficult role of the Queen of the Night all over the world, but her performance at the Saturday opening suggested that she's perhaps been singing it a bit too often. But anyone asked to perform above-the-staff coloratura while hanging from wires 15 feet off the ground at the extreme rear of the stage between two massive sound-absorbing baffles must be forgiven for seeming a little tense.

Among colleagues so variously handicapped, Anna Maria Martinez comes off best. As the heroine Pamina, her voice is pure and feminine enough to suggest the necessary innocence, powerful and finished enough to make Mozart's terribly demanding music seem easy and natural. (That she is gorgeous is perhaps irrelevant but doesn't hurt her performance a bit, either.) But even Mart???z's glow was dimmed by Daniel Beckwith's stolid conducting, which turned her lilting slow-waltz duet with Gunn, "Bei Mä®®ern," into something more like a funeral march.

The English graphic artist Gerald Scarfe designed the sets and costumes for a 1993 Los Angeles Opera production. It is to be presumed that the original director, Sir Peter Hall, knew how Scarfe intended his odd assemblage of colorful Egyptoid fancies to be used. Seattle's director, Stanley M. Garner, clearly does not. In a staging which gives new plangency to the term desultory, the only ideas in evidence are borrowed from Ingmar Bergman's 25-year-old movie version, and serve primarily to demonstrate that bits created for a film meant for home viewing on a television screen are not necessarily well adapted to live performance for an audience of 3,000.

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