Review: Admirable S.F. 'Flute' nearly magical

Spectacularly sung, visually enchanting, San Francisco Opera's new production of “The Magic Flute” had a lot going for it at the Saturday premiere.

At the beginning, Donald Runnicles and the Opera Orchestra seemingly picked up where they left off in the War Memorial Friday night, with the sizzling, superb “Tannhäuser.” No, not that Mozart sounded like Wagner, not in the least, but the Overture had all the wonderful rightness of the night before.

Then, amid the long progression of first-class performances that followed Saturday, there were some slowly moving spoken dialogues, some awkward scene changes, and the Opera Chorus in a fine but bland performance. That, combined with the conductor's frequent preference for the stately over the arousing, took something away from the overall cohesion and impact that made the final “Tannhäuser” an instant classic.

Those obstacles, however, can be remedied, and “Flute” may yet have its total magic during the remaining eight performances, running through Nov. 3.

This is the Peter Hall production _ designed gloriously by Gerald Scarfe, directed here by Stanley M. Garner, _ originally presented by Los Angeles Opera in 1992. The impressive sets and phantasmagorical costumes in this run are “extensively refurbished,” meaning that they look new and spectacular.

Scarfe's stage pictures, integrating sets and painterly projected backgrounds, range from impressive to sensational. From the hilarious hybrid animals (“crocoguin,” “giraffestrich,” etc.) to the cleverly rotating elements of Masonic architecture, the visuals encompass the worlds of fairy tales and art.

Beyond acknowledging individual performances, casting credits go to General Director David Gockley and Runnicles, who are restoring the vocal splendor of the Adler era to San Francisco.

In a large cast, amazingly without a weak link, there were some great standouts, including several local debuts. Applause just wouldn't stop, and rightly so, for the Queen of the Night's Act 2 aria (“Der Hölle Rache”), Hungarian soprano Erika Miklosa not only nailing the impossibly demanding colorature acrobatics, but singing it beautifully as well _ a combination rarely heard.

Vocal beauty and great musicality also characterizes Dina Kuznetsova's Pamina, a most attractive lyrical stage performance in a role often presented as a recital exercise.

An impressive Lensky in his 2004 San Francisco “Onegin” debut, Piotr Beczala seems born for Tamino: the voice is exactly of the right weight and timbre. Both the Polish tenor and British baritone Christopher Maltman (in his debut as Papageno) were first among cast-wide equals in exemplary German diction. Maltman's mellow but powerful voice and stage presence in this challenging comic role made a major contribution.

Georg Zeppenfeld's debut in the role of Sarastro, Philip Skinner's last-minute substitution in the role of the Speaker, and Greg Fedderly's green, Platée-like Monostatos, also were splendid.

A large group of Adler Fellows did exceptionally well: Elza van den Heever, Kendall Gladen, and Katherine Tier as the fashion-fantasy Three Ladies (still in need to produce a more even ensemble sound), Matthew O'Neill's Priest, and, especially, Rhoslyn Jones' lively Papagena. Performances by all signified milestones along significant career paths.

IF YOU GO

The Magic Flute

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17, Oct. 25 and Oct 31; 8 p.m. Oct. 19 and Nov. 3, 2 p.m. Oct. 21 and Oct. 28

Tickets: $15 to $275

Contact: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com

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