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Powerhouse `Flute' subdues picnickers

July 10, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Looking to make a buck, in 1791 Mozart and the impresario-librettist Emanuel Schikaneder came up with a great idea for a new opera that could reach the pop crowd. But where to reach such a crowd today? Sunday night, "The Magic Flute" came to the Hollywood Bowl, where the care and feeding of a large general audience has been turned into an efficient art form of its own.

New this summer is snappy signage. New too are mighty masts integrating the massive loudspeakers into the design of the current McMansion shell. Virgin has taken over bankrupt Tower Records' CD stand. Environmentally correct water-free urinals have been installed in the men's rooms. In a gesture to the outdoorsy allure of the venue, Patina has raised its prices to the stars.

And, perhaps acknowledging that magic has maybe become less prized than alfresco partying and profiteering, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which runs the Bowl, has begun cautioning audiences to "picnic responsibly" and asking each of us to "please be a polite listener."

Under such circumstances, an efficient, powerhouse concert performance of "The Magic Flute" wasn't such a bad thing, and the cast was mostly young and eager.

Beginning his third season as principal guest conductor of the Philharmonic at the Bowl, Leonard Slatkin led a propulsive, no-nonsense performance. Well, there was some nonsense, but that was relegated to the bit of dialogue that survived in this streamlined version. Every "Flute" needs a little fun, especially if listeners are expected to keep the merriment down during the performance.

This adaptation of Mozart's "singspiel" -- which, like a musical, is a combination of spoken theater and singing -- contained all the music and was sung in the original German. But the dialogue was replaced by an English-language narration by J.D. McClatchy that was declaimed emphatically by Alfred Molina. It pretty much had to be. The singers all came on like gangbusters. For the first act, the sound system was amped up to the max, threatening distortion in the high notes.

But none of that was such a bad thing either. You can enjoin Bowl picnickers as politely as you like to shut up, but loud works best. The volume got everyone's attention.

Eric Cutler and Isabel Bayrakdarian were the Tamino and Pamina. They were a likable pair of lovers, and if they sang in a grand style maybe better suited to Verdi than to Mozart, they had a vast space to fill and a lot of people to reach (the evening looked well attended). Hugh Russell was a hammy Papageno, but that goes with the goofy bird-catcher territory. He sang resonantly, even if his acting came off as too all-American.

Sumi Jo, the Queen of the Night, was the evening's star singer. She wore a voluptuous red gown and a glittering tiara and looked very regal. But in her first-act aria, her coloratura was effortful. The microphone was not her friend in the high notes, although her lower register was magnificent. An announcement after intermission explained that she was "slightly unwell."

Alfred Reiter was the solemn priest Sarastro, tenor David Cangelosi the wily Monostatos. Maureen McKay proved a lusty Papagena. A touch of luxury casting placed the superb young mezzo Kelley O'Connor as third of the Three Ladies; she will be a soloist in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony later this month. The Los Angeles Children's Choir can be proud of supplying the Three Boys. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was its usual excellent self.

This was not the tightest "Flute." I missed a certain amount of lyricism and a lot of magic. But Slatkin had the pacing down. I think he understood his audience well. And for the second half, he and his singers had the benefit of a more settled-down crowd and of a smoother, silkier response from the loudspeakers.

Slatkin got little help, however, from the ham-fisted video. Nor were there supertitles on the screens. I think everyone would have been happier had the opera been sung in English. A truly efficient "Flute" is an understandable one.

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