The Center Stage Opera (CSO) is a small opera company in San Fernando Valley that has been putting on modern versions of classic operas for the last several years and performs at the Madrid Theater in Canoga Park. The Madrid theater with seating for about 400, has a nice lobby, an orchestra level and balcony, and good acoustics.
The young opera company is headed by two alumni of the California State University, Northridge, Music School: tenor Dylan F. Thomas, Co-Founder and Artistic Director, and Brian Onderdonk, Music Director and Principal conductor who leads his Center Stage Opera Orchestra for all the productions. These two musical entrepreneurs direct three full-length operas in each season, along with numerous opera education outreach programs for variety of ages and audiences in the region. The company also serves as a showcase for the talents of young and emerging opera singers and their resident lyric soprano, Shira Renee Thomas.
On Sunday, Sept 15th 2013, the Center Stage Opera gave their last of three performances of their new version of “The Magic Flute” to a sold out audience. At this performance, the audience was comprised mostly of an over 50 crowd, a few families with well-behaved children and many young opera students.
Mozart’s “Magic Flute” demands a great deal from opera soloists, stage director and conductor. The story is a mixture of fantastic fairytale, comedy, morality play, and an exposition of some of the Masonic beliefs relating to the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. The music and story explore such universal themes as light and dark, good and evil, the possibility for human enlightenment and the fight for moral goodness.
Written in the late 18th century, “The Magic Flute” was one of Mozart’s last works and commissioned for a folk theater in Vienna as a Singspiel, a “sung play.” The opera employs spoken dialogue along with beautiful symmetry in musical forms, elegant and comedic ensemble numbers, trios, duets, arias, etc. and a few impressive choral moments as well.
In the hands of great stage directors and conductors Mozart’s “Magic Flute” can bring audiences into a delightful fairytale world, that given today’s commercial theater and movies of wizardry and magic, is easy to accept and enjoy. Along with poignant moments of drama, emotion, gentle comedy, sparkling arias of formal elegance and even a touch of transcendence, the opera contains some of Mozart most melodic and memorable music.
In Brian Onderdonks’ mechanical conducting, Mozart’s splendid music sounded flat and dull. Maestro Onderdonk’s pedestrian interpretation of the score seemed to focus on making up for lost time, since the new dialogue weighed down the length of the opera. In the Sept.15th performance, Maestro Onderdonk also reduced most of the opera to one tempo – medium fast. And when that was not possible, faster. Much of the musical symmetry and variety such as orchestral accompaniment details and vocal shadings of text, got blurred and lost in this approach. Fortunately, Onderdonk was more sensitive to phrasing and tempos when he was accompanying the solo arias.
In Center Stage’s new production of “The Magic Flute”, Director Dylan F. Thomas changed some of the plot and shifted the opera’s exploration about the power play between the dark and the light, fathers and mothers, romance and marriage, into a 21st century cartoon sit-com full of silly, strange people vainly trying to relate to each other. The cast, many in shapeless costumes wore unattractive stripes or war paint on their faces. Many also had bird masks partially hiding their features, which didn’t add anything to their characters.
Though Director Thomas did succeed in some of the lighter moments to inject some genuinely inventive and cute bits of stage business, much of what occurred on stage better suited audiences attending an “introduction” to Opera, such as out-reach programs for elementary school-aged children.
Thomas also wrote a new script in English for the spoken dialogue to further “update” the story. Unfortunately, this didn’t help to unify his production concept. Though speaking in English and using slang expressions, the cast sang in the original German, while new English translations were projected above in super titles. These kind of artistic choices added more confusion to an already problematic production. It was an odd choice not to make the entire production sung in the several decent English translations available.
The two lead male roles – noble Prince Tamino and his country-bumpkin partner in adventure, Papageno the bird catcher – suffered the most in this attempt at adapting Mozart’s opera for our “modern” audiences.
Grammy nominated Filipino tenor, Rodell Rosel singing the role of the noble Prince, became in this version, not a Prince but a hyped up and clueless young baseball player who dreams up this whole story while lost in a cave, looking for his baseball. Rosel’s interpretation was energetic, youthful and cute. However, his dramatic vocal sound didn’t match this comedic take on the role. His arias and duets were performed with earnest correctness and perfect German. On the whole, his rather strident tenor voice lacked the flexibility, range of dynamics or colors needed for this lyrical tenor role.
Papageno who is a simple country bird-catcher concerned with the material side of life, and the counter foil to Tamino’s nobility and self-control was made even sillier than usual. This is a role that can easily become the opera’s scene stealer, but in this staging was played with ever decreasing level of charm though adequate vocal expression, by the Venezuelan Baritone, Bernardo Bermudez.
There were two standouts of the afternoon’s performance who transcended the shallow staging to some degree. One was the fiery and charismatic presence of Christine Capsuto, whose Queen of the Night was a pleasure to see and hear. However, though she has a good sized lyric soprano voice, Capsuto’s inability to sing accurate coloratura marred an otherwise excellent first try at this difficult role. The second was Perry Brown, the most seasoned performer in the cast in the role of Sarastro, Ruler of the Light. Despite his strange Darth Vader like outfit, flawed German diction and the fast tempos in his arias, Brown’s true basso profundo, imposing presence and vocal powers, provided the audience with moments of real operatic grandeur.
Playing the leading ingénue role of the captive Princess Pamina, was Shira Rene Thomas, the resident lyric soprano of Center Stage Opera. Thomas displayed an excellent technique, good German and gracious phrasing. Pamina’s famous aria “Ach ich fühl’s” in the 2nd act, was sung with consummate skill. Despite her excellent singing, she did not project much youthful charm or ardor in her part. Her unflattering costume and bird mask, unlike the more successful costume created for Queen of the Night, further hindered her portrayal.
The rest of the cast, made up of young or emerging professional opera singers made the most of the campy style of acting required for this production, singing with well-trained voices and good German diction.
While Center Stage Opera’s new “Magic Flute” certainly made an earnest attempt at presenting this well-known opera in “new clothes” the question remains: does Mozart’s “Magic Flute” with music which transcends centuries and whose libretto while perhaps quaint, is still sturdy in today’s world of commercialized magic and wizards – really need this kind of make-over?