SAN FRANCISCO — At last, a success. Everything is relative.
It hasn't been a very distinguished season, so far, at the San Francisco Opera. For festive openers, Terence McEwen, the company director, merely took an old, lackluster "Barbiere di Siviglia" out of mothballs. Matters hardly improved with a miscalculated "Salome" and a tired "Tosca."
The quasi-new production of Mozart's "Die Zauberflote" is, thank goodness, another story.
This may not be the most magical of "Flutes." For the elusive ideal, one still must look to the Ingmar Bergman film or the Rennert and Ponnelle stagings in postwar Salzburg. Nevertheless, this is a thoughtful, intelligent, stylish production, one that pays serious and enlightened attention to sight as well as sound.
The most striking element actually is the scenic design. This, after all, is "Die Zauberflote" as envisioned by David Hockney.
The artist first envisioned it, one should note, in 1978 for the tiny stage at Glyndebourne. The inventive sets were enlarged for La Scala seven years later, and it is the Milanese version that has come in triumph to the War Memorial Opera House.
Unlike some celebrated predecessors, Hockney and his collaborating stage director, John Cox, did not see the opera as a cute Viennese confection or a somber moral ritual. They chose to stress old-fashioned theatrical innocence, telling the story swiftly and without affectation amid an ingenious network of painted flats, drops and traps.
Hockney played knowingly with intriguing symmetrical patterns, with perplexing geometrical perspectives and disarmingly naive storybook vistas. He was impeccable, in the process, about respecting the tone and dynamics of the score.
His exotic inspirations exerted their own fascination. But they never overpowered Mozart, never contradicted the essential expressive impulses.
Cox did his considerable best to populate this canvas never-never land with credible, sympathetic figures. He steadfastly avoided the usual cliches and caricatures, just as he eschewed extraneous gags.
The inspiration level, as regards narration and motivation, may not be stratospheric. In this day of gimmickry and dramatic perversion, however, one must be grateful for literal favors.
Musically, the production was never less than respectable, occasionally more. The most serious liability, Tuesday night, involved the brisk, unscholarly and rather prosaic conducting of Friedemann Layer, Generalmusikdirektor of the modest Mannheim Opera.
The cast was dominated, easily, by Francisco Araiza. Here, at last, was a Tamino of manly--even princely--bearing who could muster finesse and melting tone for the lyrical passages yet rise to the dramatic climaxes with a nice heroic ring.
Etelka Csavlek, his attractive Pamina from Hungary, turned out to be womanly rather than girlish. Her lustrous soprano, moreover, proved notable for weight rather than purity. That hardly precluded extraordinarily poignant phrasing, or ravishing shading of the arching line in "Ach, ich fuhl's." Despite some uneven vocalism, she served notice of a major, compelling talent.
Luciana Serra, the Italian coloratura, snapped and crackled some crystalline staccati and perfectly poised High Fs in the arias of the Queen of the Night, and even managed a semblance of sinister articulation. She could not delineate the cascading triplet figures with much clarity, or produce the big, cutting tones that made the young Cristina Deutekom unique in this impossible role. Still, she came closer to the lofty throne than most current pretenders.
The others proved less exceptional. Kevin Langan offered an amiable, sturdy, bel-canto Sarastro who looked comfortable in his odd pasha turban but sounded uncomfortable in the guise of a booming basso profondo . David Malis introduced a pleasant, gentle, restrained Papageno whose baritone and sense of character both tended toward the pallid.
Thomas Stewart, a veteran Wotan, brought appropriate dignity and authority to the crucial utterances of the Speaker, and, for good measure, did additional duty as the First Priest. Cheryl Parrish created a winsome Papagena despite a costume that, in the apt description of a critical colleague, made her resemble an artichoke.
Frank Kelley, the light-voiced Monostatos, had the good sense to play the villainous Moor for menace rather than laughs. The Queen's Ladies--Deborah Voigt, Kathryn Cowdrick and Judith Christin--did not to turn out to be the most mellifluous trio in history, and the three meek little "Boys" from the San Francisco Girls Choir suffered severe pitch problems.
The non-German ensemble mangled the German text on behalf of a non-German audience in a variety of perverse ways. The best diction came from Araiza--a Mexican.
The infernally distracting supertitles malfunctioned intermittently, anticipated the jokes, played loose with the tone of the libretto and sanitized the text.
"Prince, shmince!" Papageno presumably exclaimed at one exquisitely Mozartean point.
The archaic, negative references to blacks and women were dutifully sung, as usual, but the revisionist translations softened, contradicted or ignored most of the verbal blows. So much for literary integrity and double standards at the opera.