Monday, November 11, 2013


Cleveland Institute of Music
November 6

The Queen's ladies set the vocal and sartorial tone.

Opera directors tend to approach Mozart with a certain reverence. Not so David Bamberger, the former Cleveland Opera impresario who now teaches opera and stages student productions at CIM. In a talk before last week’s premiere of The Magic Flute, he described it as the Star Wars of its time, a bit of pop fluff with an inexplicably long life. He also confided that he has grown to dislike the high priest Sarastro, dismissing him as a politician and a misogynist. “So I got rid of him!”

Sarastro was not totally gone from Bamberger’s production, but his prominence was greatly reduced, as were almost all the weightier elements of the opera. Instead it was a tongue-in-cheek romp, more Shakespearean comedy than Masonic idealism, filled with modern vernacular, whimsical props and the occasional sly aside (“Can’t you read the supertitles?”). It also had a smart postmodern sensibility, starting with the players gathering onstage to pick out costumes that looked like they had been culled from West Side thrift shops.

Bamberger likes to break the fourth wall, so it was no surprise that the action started with Tamino (David Fair) running through the audience, being chased by a Chinese New Year’s parade-style dragon. The three ladies who rescued him – Laurel Weir, Michelle Lajeunesse and Cynthia Skelley-Wohlschlager – set the vocal standard for the evening with a fine “beautiful boy” trio. Tamino was less impressive both as a singer and actor when he awoke, though Papageno (Brian James Myer) was strong from his opening “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja.”

Flash and dash.
The Queen of the Night (Samantha Farmilant) entered to strobe light flashes that comprised the most dramatic element of an otherwise spare set, and didn’t quite nail her coloratura lines, though she did better in the second half, when all the singers seemed more relaxed and settled in. The three young spirits (Halla Kalmansson, Victoria Kerr, Huiyu Zhang) looked like they had forgotten to take off their Halloween fright wigs, but sang beautifully, especially in the ensembles, and added an appropriately impish acting touch.

Acting was in general the weakest part of the performance, which is to be expected in a student production. Some of that was due to Bamberger deliberately stripping away the mystique of the roles – Pamina in a contemporary sweater and dress rather than a princess gown, and the spoken 
dialogue all in English with snappy slang like 
“These priests are touchy!”

So long, Sarastro.
But the music was where it belonged – front and center, well-played and expertly sung. One might have wished for a stronger Pamina (Allyson Dezii) or Monostatos (Corey Shotwell), but overall there was not a single bad voice in the cast, a reflection of the caliber of students CIM attracts and the training they receive. Sarastro’s (I Sheng Huang) bass was so deep and solid, he might have been a ringer brought in for the role. And the chorus, even (or maybe especially) with a preponderance of female voices, was spot-on.

The orchestra was even better, playing with precision and imbuing the music with a playful spirit and buoyancy. It is not a left-handed compliment to say that hidden in the pit, it was quickly forgotten. The best opera orchestras are usually invisible, integrated so seamlessly into the narrative – and in this case, often propelling it – that the audience gets swept along, never focusing on component parts of the whole. Conductor Harry Davidson and his players deserved every bit of the enthusiastic applause they received.

In keeping with Bamberger’s stated intention to put the future in the hands of a new generation, Sarastro and the Queen of the Night made their final exit up the aisles, leaving Tamino and Pamina at the center of a young, joyful retinue onstage. By then Tamino was dressed in a lime-green Sgt. Pepper costume. But at least nobody was pulling out their smartphones. Or light sabers. We’ll look for those at CIM’s new music concert at the planetarium in February.

For more on the production:

For more on David Bamberger:

Photos: CIM/LDennison

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