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Mozart's 'Magic Flute' layers symbolism, fantasy

Production of German piece opens Saturday at the Utah Opera

In his short life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an amazingly prolific composer, writing well over 600 works. And in the process of producing this wealth of music, he managed to redefine, reformulate, rethink and refine classical forms.

Following his older contemporary, Joseph Haydn, who formalized and perfected the symphony and string quartet forms, Mozart took them a step further, and gave these genres added depth and dimension, paving the way for the 19th century.

Nor did opera escape Mozart's sophisticated touch. It is perhaps in his operas that you can see his true genius at play, especially in his final forays in the genre. In the last five years of his life, Mozart wrote five works that managed — incredibly — to burst the confines of classicism and open the way to the blossoming romanticism of the early 19th century.

Unlike Gioachino Rossini, who was a master of comic opera, or Giuseppe Verdi, who excelled in drama, Mozart was a skilled craftsman in all areas. Of his last five operas, four defy the stereotypes of 18th century Italian opera ("Le Nozze di Figaro," "Cosi fan Tutte," "Don Giovanni" and "La Clemenza di Tito").

With the fifth, "Die Zauberflote" ("The Magic Flute"), Mozart succeeded in writing the first German opera. Although Carl Maria von Weber's "Der Freischutz" is credited as being the first truly German opera, "Die Zauberflote" set the stage for the latter with its wonderfully blended layers of symbolism and fantasy.

"Die Zauberflote" isn't easily categorized. Depending on which character you look at, you can view it as a comic German folk opera (Papageno and Papagena) or as a stylized "opera seria" with a baroque vengeful fury (the Queen of the Night). Underlying it all, however, is the higher ideal of striving for truth and justice (Sarastro and the priests of Isis).

And confounding everything even further is the fact that nothing is as it seems at first. One is led to believe that Sarastro is evil because he kidnaps Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. But later in the story, the truth comes through — Sarastro took the innocent girl away from her mother to protect her, since the Queen is bent on destroying all that is good in the world. Pamina needs to be saved, and Sarastro foresees that the young prince Tamino has been destined by the gods to be her husband.

Within this jumble of apparently contradictory elements, Mozart casts his magic spell and fleshes out these fantastic characters and makes them appear real and credible.

Utah Opera is bringing Mozart's masterpiece back to the Capitol Theatre, beginning Saturday, for the first time in a decade. This is a new production conceived by stage director Thaddeus Strassberger, who also designed the sets.

"I made it much more of a period piece than you would normally see," Strassberger said during an interview in Utah Opera's production studio. "It is specifically early 19th-century looking."

Even though the sets give the impression of being remarkably spare and modernistic, Strassberger said that he set the story in Egypt. "There are a lot of desert palm trees, pyramids and temple ruins — things that you find in Egypt today, and what you would have found there in the early 19th century." (Photos of the sets are on Strassberger's Web site at www.tstrassberger.com.) For this production to work, it was important not to create a synthetic world, he said. "The world of this 'Magic Flute' is earthy and sincere."

Jennifer Aylmer agrees with Strassberger. The young soprano will be making her Utah Opera debut as Pamina, a role she has previously sung with New York City Opera. She said that her character in Strassberger's conceptualization is genuinely believable. "This production is unlike any other I've seen. I'm a real person, not a fairy-tale princess."

Normally, Pamina is represented as an idealized princess, Aylmer said. "Even when she is a prisoner, she is still pretty and impeccably coiffed. Here, however, her dress is tattered and her hair is in disarray. You can tell immediately that she has endured something. And that raises the stakes."

"I'm looking forward to this production," said baritone Carlos Archuleta, who'll be singing Papageno. "It's powerful and gritty, more so than what people expect. It makes it more interesting." At the same time, it is also more human. "It expresses more flaws in human nature."

Robert Tweten returns to Utah Opera to conduct. He said he is very happy with the cast. "They are a great bunch of singers." He pointed in particular to the Three Ladies and the Three Boys. "They can be difficult to cast, because they need to blend vocally. But I couldn't be happier with the singers in these roles."

Singing the Three Ladies are Heidi Stober, Jamie van Eyck and Jessica Bowers. The parts of the Three Boys will be sung by members of the Cathedral of the Madeleine Choir School. "Those boys are just wonderful," Tweten said.

Tamino will be sung by tenor Scott Murphree, the Queen of the Night by soprano Amanda Pabyan and Sarastro by bass Alfred Walker. All three are making their Utah Opera debuts. Papagena will be sung by Utah Opera Ensemble Studio Artist Genevieve Christianson.

Archuleta spoke for everyone when he said that this version of "Die Zauberflote" will be challenging. "It's going to be challenging for (the audience), and it challenges us, too. But I love that."

The opera will be sung in German, with supertitles, but the spoken dialogue will be in English. While opening night is nearly sold out, there are tickets available for other performances.

If you go

What: "The Magic Flute," Utah Opera

Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South

When: Saturday, Monday, Wednesday and March 17, 7:30 p.m.; March 19, 2 p.m.

How much: $10-$70

Phone: 355-2787 or 888-451-2787

Web: www.utahsymphonyopera.org


E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com