The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Magic Flute” proved enjoyable, opulent and superb | April 25, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and opera veteran filed this review:

By Larry Wells

I attended last Sunday’s matinee performance of the Madison Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” (Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

The opera’s mystifying combination of fairy tale and Masonic ritual has been better explained by others, including the legendary Anna Russell. Those who know her only through her analysis of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle should seek out her lecture on “The Magic Flute, which is accompanied on the CD by an equally humorous look at Verdi’s “Nabucco.” A search through the iTunes store will easily yield these treasures.

The scenery and costumes (below), which were borrowed from Arizona Opera, were superb. I was captivated by the clever set, the opulent costumes and the amazing props.

The choice to have the spoken dialogue in English, while the sung parts remained in German with supertitles in English, was a smart move and helped move the ridiculous plot lines along.

The playing by members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor from the Juilliard School, Gary Thor Wedow, (below) was, as usual, brilliant.

And the singing was, for the most part, first-rate.

Special mention should be made of Andrew Bidlack (below top) as a consistently arresting Tamino and Amanda Woodbury (below, right, with Scott Brunscheen as Monostatos) as a crystalline Pamina. Their first act duet was perfection.

Likewise, Caitlin Cisler played the Queen of the Night (below center) and her vocal fireworks were spectacular, plus she was a delight to watch in her bizarre winged costume. (You can hear the Queen of the Night’s astonishing and virtuosic aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I enjoyed Alan Dunbar’s Papageno (below). He has a gift for comedy.

And probably my favorite characters, the three ladies (below, from left, with Tamino) portrayed by Amanda Kingston, Kelsey Park and Anna Parks were brilliantly sung and acted.

UW-Madison graduate Anna Polum (below) did not disappoint in the smaller role of Papagena, and we will be fortunate to hear her again soon in Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” with the Madison Symphony Orchestra next month.

The three spirits, sung by local schoolboys, were fun to watch with their steampunk attire and props, but they were vocally rather thin.

Nathan Stark’s Sarastro tested the limits of his vocal range. It’s a difficult role in any event since Sarastro has the unfortunate habit of stopping the opera’s action in its tracks whenever he appears.

The audience loved the whole thing, laughing at the comic absurdities and applauding whenever the music paused. But I cannot help wondering why “The Magic Flute” is such a popular opera. Its plot is basically incomprehensible, its second act goes on a half hour too long, the Queen of the Night’s downfall is never satisfactorily explained, and despite a number of memorable tunes, there are, in my mind, many more musically satisfying operas.

Next season we can look forward to yet another of the countless performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” and yet another Mozart opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Madison does seem to love its Mozart. But we will also be hearing the late Daniel Catan’s lush, Puccini-esque “Florencia en el Amazonas,” for which I give praise.

I got to thinking about what other lesser performed operas that are not 200 years old might please the Madison crowd and quickly came up with: Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”; Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”; Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe”; Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love.”

Each of these is as melodic as “The Magic Flute” and each has certainly more compelling storylines.

What are your suggestions?


  1. I like most of Larry’s suggestions (but ‘The Consul’ can be such a downer!), would love a ‘Rake’s Progress’ or ‘Susannah,’ or something really light like ‘Man of La Mancha’ or even MO’s take on a ‘Mikado’ (never too many of those)!


    Comment by Dan Shea — April 25, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

    • You’ll be able to hear ‘Man of La Mancha’ in August at Shannon Hall at UW.


      Comment by Larry Wells — April 25, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

  2. I didn’t see/hear the Madison Opera’s Mozart performance, but do have strong negative memories of a MAGIC FLUTE at the St. Louis Opera three years ago. The singing was good, the orchestra (St. Louis Symphony) superb, but it was a “director’s opera” production, with meaningless dancing, movement, projections, and even extra characters. We left after the first act. I second all Mr. Wells’s proposed repertoire. I would add anything (except RAPE OF LUCRETIA) by Benjamin Britten, and any opera by Richard Strauss. An opera I consider one of the great music dramas of the 20th century, Eric Korngold’s DIE TOTE STADT, would also tempt me to attend.

    Peter Schmalz


    Comment by Peter Schmalz — April 25, 2017 @ 10:15 am

    • I like the music in Rape of Lucretia, but it is very weak dramatically. I’d love to see Strauss operas and Die Tote Stadt, but I haven’t heard any singers performing with Madison Opera who have the chops to pull off operas of that heft.


      Comment by Larry Wells — April 25, 2017 @ 10:54 am

  3. I loved this excellent production from start to final curtain. Regarding the “ridiculous” plot, that applies to many operas and is why we rely on suspension of disbelief. Stark’s Sarastro was compelling and his dignified demeanor was perfect — a little trouble with the lowest notes bothered me very little. I was
    irritated a couple of times with the audience tittering at length, which masked the singing. I want to hear every note! Thank you, Madison Opera.


    Comment by bbead — April 25, 2017 @ 9:08 am

  4. Bravo to these new suggestions. We’re saturated with Carmens from all directions too and long to hear these alternatives.


    Comment by Linda — April 25, 2017 @ 7:24 am

  5. I agreed with almost all of the guest reviewer’s comments. How about adding Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and “Daphne” to the list?


    Comment by Ann Boyer — April 25, 2017 @ 6:09 am

  6. It’s a great opera that to some extent broke the mold for operas. It is also beloved by many in other cultures because it (like Charlie Chaplin) transcends cultures.


    Comment by FFlambeau — April 25, 2017 @ 4:24 am

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