Jun Kaneko’s Magic Flute at San Francisco Opera doesn’t lack aesthetic appeal. Bright crayon drawings and rectangles creep across the backdrop and legs. The Queen of the Night’s initial appearance is complemented by a children’s art class version of colorful fireworks. These playful projections serve as a wonderfully varied backdrop, though sometimes the animation can draw focus away from the singers. The animals of this Magic Flute are in the same fantastical style – improbable spotted ellipsoids with brightly striped stockings. The miniature Papagenos and Papagenas are especially adorable; Kaneko should consider selling souvenir stuffed animals.

© Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

There’s an opportunity missed in this multimedia production: The projections reflect the overall sentiment of each scene or piece, but they are not timed to coordinate with the music on a chord-by-chord level. The occasional simultaneous chord and explosion of color would have been funny and tied more aspects of the staging together. Harry Silverstein’s direction also doesn’t have the characters onstage responding directly to the music. In fact, they do a lot of standing in one place and singing, which can make this show feel slow and static. They don’t have much to work with; the downside of a mostly digital production is the near-total lack of sets or props. Even the strongest actors, like Efrain Solis as Papageno, struggle to keep our attention during long arias on a flat, bare stage.

Efrain Solis as Papageno © Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
Efrain Solis as Papageno
© Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
Two singers were ill for Tuesday’s performance, but that didn’t prevent the cast from being stellar. Kathryn Bowden stepped in as Queen of the Night, a role she played with regal bearing and spot-on coloratura fireworks. Her weaker tone in her lower and middle range showed during ‘O zittre nicht’, but her stratospheric top notes were precise and intense. Julie Adams took over the role of the First Lady, but she and her fellow Ladies (Nian Wang and Zanda Svede) were so dramatically and musically together that the substitution would have been undetectable without an announcement. The three have distinctive personalities and voices that combined well, and they consistently amused with their extravagant antics.

Sarah Shafer and Paul Appleby sung the young lovers Pamina and Tamino with beauty and conviction. Shafer’s voice has an airy tone that can at times seem unfocused, but it actually suits the ingénue character quite well. The sweetness of her voice is balanced by her enthusiasm and charisma; she may be innocent and pretty, but she’s no helpless damsel! Appleby has a flexible Mozart tenor full of expression. He never quite found Tamino’s heroic bearing, though, vocally or dramatically. Of course, he still seemed positively princely in comparison to Efraín Solís’s ridiculous Papageno. Solis stumbled around the stage, singing with a solid and sensitive baritone and delivering awkward lines without ever breaking character.

Sarah Shafer as Pamina, Alfred Reiter as Sarastro © Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
Sarah Shafer as Pamina, Alfred Reiter as Sarastro
© Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
In the temple halls, Alfred Reiter makes a stiff but commanding Sarastro. His voice wobbles a bit in the middle, but he has a nice droning sound on his bottom notes. Finally, Greg Fedderly’s performance as Monostatos suggests he has a promising future not only in character tenor operatic roles, but also in intentionally hilariously terrible ballet.

Lawrence Foster makes a great San Francisco Opera debut conducting the orchestra. Occasional minor coordination slip-ups notwithstanding, the music always sounds full and never overwhelms the singers. A light touch and huge dynamic contrasts, especially during the overture, match the visual playfulness of the production. The flutes and strings sound especially smooth and lovely throughout. The chorus also sings well, with a pleasant, multi-textured but well-blended sound, particularly during ‘O Isis und Osiris’.

San Francisco Opera made the odd decision to present this Singspiel in English, in a translation by the company’s General Director David Gockley. As singing translations go, it’s competent, with good attention paid to maintaining vowel sounds and rhyme schemes. However, it’s uneven. The funnier arias go over quite well, with quick delivery and clever rhymes. Some of the more serious numbers fall flat; ‘Dies Bildnis’ sounds absurd in modern and unassuming English vernacular. The translation attempts to be slangy and casual, especially during the dialogue, which can be humorous but can also be cringe-inducing, especially given the actors’ stilted and unconversational delivery. It is also disappointing that Gockley didn’t use his translation to call out, eliminate, or undermine the opera’s inherent racism and misogyny. If he was liberal enough with his source material to joke about drag queens, surely he could have found an alternative to ‘Moor’ to describe Monostatos.

It’s wonderful to see a Magic Flute this imaginative and this well-sung. It falls short of the ideal in a few ways – an uneven translation, an unwillingness to address the piece’s problems, and a shortage of dramatic stage action – but it’s still sure to provoke smiles.