Is Mozart’s Magic Flute a children’s opera? With scenery and costume design by Maurice Sendak – illustrator and author of the beloved book Where the Wild Things Are – and in a simplified English translation by Andrew Porter, Washington National Opera’s iteration (a production from Portland Opera) sheds the seriousness of Die Zauberflöte to don a more innocent cloak. But in doing so, this Magic Flute manifests as a series of odd couples.

Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night) and David Portillo (Tamino) © Scott Suchman
Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night) and David Portillo (Tamino)
© Scott Suchman

On the opening scrim, the head of an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh sits across from a wigged 18th-century profile; later, the three spirits pair Egyptian skirts with white wigs too, the bow tying their white powdered braid kissing the Usekh collar encircling their shoulders. The Queen of the Night storms the temple of Isis and Osiris wearing a high court hoop petticoat.

David Portillo (Tamino) © Scott Suchman
David Portillo (Tamino)
© Scott Suchman

There’s little confusion in the vocal brawn of the leads, however. After a narrowly escaping a beast costumed as a Yoshi dragon, tenor David Portillo, dressed in ice blue breeches and waistcoat, opened the opera with a glowing and pristine vocal color as Tamino. Bravely evading Monostatos by racing through a jungle in a fitted bodice as Pamina, soprano Sydney Mancasola never sounded anything but clear as a bell and winsome as the moon rising behind her.

Sydney Mancasola (Pamina) and Michael Adams (Papageno) © Scott Suchman
Sydney Mancasola (Pamina) and Michael Adams (Papageno)
© Scott Suchman

Baritone Michael Adams, as Papageno, is from voice to stage presence more handsome than his character deserves. Even at his most absurd, so adept as to elicit the warmest chuckles from the hall, he sang with a vigor that would undoubtedly set Wagner’s Valhalla on fire. As the fierce Queen of the Night, Kathryn Lewek was the only exception, and just by a technical hair. The iconic “Der Hölle Rache” in the second act skewed sharp, and the famed, high-reaching arpeggios and repeated seven-note phrases had a few rough landings.

With a plain no-frills English translation, the compositional sophistication inherent to Mozart’s score also presented an unusual meeting of lowbrow prose with highbrow music. Conductor Eun Sun Kim handled the convergence with a steady baton, proficient to the point of cautious. But with so many aesthetic and artistic decisions already in the air, perhaps it was wise not to rock the boat.

David Cangelosi (Monostatos), Sydney Mancasola (Pamina), Michael Adams (Papageno) © Scott Suchman
David Cangelosi (Monostatos), Sydney Mancasola (Pamina), Michael Adams (Papageno)
© Scott Suchman

After all, undeniably lettered themes that are a shocking distance away from childish glee undergird this production. Can a fable of revenge, wisdom and honor cover over the multitude of masonic mysteries and ancient Egyptian mythology here? Osiris only became god of the underworld after his brother Seth, god of chaos, cut his body into tiny pieces. The Masonic initiation rites undergirding Tamino’s second-act quest are only a glimpse of the 42 negative confessions a soul would need to make on its way to Osiris’ judgement – that or be devoured by Ammut, a demoness with the head of a crocodile and the body of a leopard that could permanently eradicate a person’s existence with a snap of its jaws.

If The Magic Flute is an opera for children, then its strength lies in its ability to gently break down the more serious things life inevitably throws at us: suicide, heartbreak, betrayal. But a production can only drape the opera’s heavier significations with naïveté, and as jolly as the approach makes much of the work, it’s difficult not to feel a shade cheated.

***11