Pittsburgh Opera earns applause in magical 'Magic Flute'

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In Mozart's "The Magic Flute," the heroic characters often use music to exert control over situations around them. On one occasion, Tamino enchants animals with his magical instrument, and they dance around him, entranced by the music.

Mozart's work had a similar effect on Pittsburgh Opera's entertaining performance of "Flute" at the Benedum Center on Saturday night, with a production that was bewitching musically and otherwise.

The performance, in Andrew Porter's English translation, was funny and engaging thanks to thoughtful, detailed stage direction by Jen Nicoll and skilled acting by the cast. Though the opera has serious elements, they were somewhat downplayed in this version.

There was almost always something eye-catching on stage. The dancing animals (zebra, giraffe, bird among them) comically bounced around in larger-than-life costumes by set/costume designer Myung Hee Cho. In the second act, visually arresting, anthropomorphic fire and water swirled around the stage, bathed in colorful lighting designed by Drew Billiau. The first half featured a neat play-within-a-play setting, which gave viewers something interesting to look at, although it was inexplicably abandoned in the second.

All that stagecraft did not cover up the singing, which was good across the board and excellent in a couple of cases.

Soprano Layla Claire made her Pittsburgh Opera debut as Pamina, and I hope she'll come back soon. Over the course of the evening, her character seemed to grow from operatic Barbie (not available in stores) to mature heroine mired in genuine emotional struggle. Her voice was big and rich throughout, made all the better by strong acting, pinpoint accuracy and fine control, particularly in her second act aria.

Tenor Sean Panikkar was a stately Tamino. He sported a bell-like, clear voice that was big but not dense and blended well with Pamina's. His acting was somewhat stilted, made more obvious by the spoken English dialogue, although his fingering of the flute part was another example of the production's meticulous staging.

Baritone Craig Verm played an appropriately dopey Papageno. He had facility and ease with his body and voice, effectively delivering physical comedy throughout. Despite the humor, he buckled down for serious singing that, if not the most exciting in the production, was strong.

As the Queen of the Night, soprano Audrey Luna had killer high notes and a gorgeous trill, particularly in her first aria, but her diction was not clear. She was also sharp in the famous staccato high notes of her second aria.

Her counterpoint, Sarastro, was played by bass Oren Gradus, who gave a menschlike, regal performance of the forgiveness aria. His lowest notes, however, were consistently softer in volume, and he did not blend well in his trio with Pamina and Tamino.

In a production that featured a slew of current and former resident artists, the young singers held their own. As Papagena, soprano Meredith Lustig was an equally funny counterpart to Papageno.

Tenor Daniel Curran was a suitably creepy Monostatos and sang with a pleasant, although smallish, voice. The three ladies, performed by Jasmine Muhammad, Samantha Korbey and Nicole Rodin, garnered well-deserved laughs as they clashed over the handsome, unconscious Tamino.

Strangely enough, the three boys (or "spirits," as written in the program) were played by three bearded ladies, here beautifully sung by Rebecca Belcyzk, Amanda Joos and Kaitlin Very.

The orchestra successfully negotiated the brisk tempi of music director Antony Walker.

The imperfections chafed but should not deter, for this was a production often as fantastic as it was fantastical.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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