Review: At Merola, a Mozart opera bursts with comic vitality

Chelsea Lehnea (center) as Pamina with (from left) Olivia Prendergast, Maggie Reneé and Cody Bowers in the Merola Opera Program production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Photo: Kristen Loken

“The Magic Flute” has its share of serious material, as Mozart channeled his newfound enthusiasm for Freemasonry into a story about love, duty, wisdom and self-knowledge (with a small side helping of misogyny, sad to say). But to appreciate the opera’s comic brilliance, it helps to watch it through the eyes of the young.

In the audience for the superb performance given by the Merola Opera Program on Thursday, Aug. 4 — the first of two — was an opera enthusiast who looked about 8 or 9 years old. She sat with an array of four stuffed animals on her lap and delighted in every moment of the performance — laughing uproariously at the funny parts, feeling the pain of the young lovers, and scoffing with well-merited outrage whenever the libretto suggested that women are not to be trusted.

I know about the stuffed animals because I was seated immediately behind her, but everyone in the theater for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts could hear the silvery peals of giggling that greeted each new gag. It was a welcome reminder of how much joy this work can impart in the right hands.

And make no mistake, this “Flute” paid off at every turn.

Baritone Scott Lee as Papageno (left) and Ashley Marie Robillard as Papagena in the Merola Opera Program production of “The Magic Flute.” Photo: Kristin Loken

Conductor Kelly Kuo gave Mozart’s vivid score a sleek, energetic profile that kept the action moving brightly along, even as he made space for the piece’s more somber, reflective passages.

The production by designer Ian Winters (with sets by Stephen D. Mazzeno, costumes by Zandra Rhodes and lighting by Jim French) was a marvel of ingenuity, full of comic-book colors and exuberant whimsy, and director Gina Lapinski used the physical space to maximum effect.

In most ways, this was a traditionally conceived production. The Temple of Wisdom where the mage Sarastro holds court was once again bedecked in Egyptian imagery, along with some celestial star charts as projections. The prince and princess looked like we expect storybook characters to look, and the bird-catcher Papageno was decked out in full avian regalia. I particularly enjoyed the Three Spirits, with their silver lamé outfits and white wigs as if they’d just wandered in from the go-go.

Soprano Maggie Kinabrew is the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.” Photo: Kristen Loken

Yet even within those familiar trappings, the opera bubbled with a newly infectious sense of vitality and adventure. At every juncture, the story seemed to unfold in fresh and unpredictable directions.

None of that would have been possible if not for a deep and capable cast drawn from the young artists of this summer’s Merola Program, the first feeder for the San Francisco Opera’s training wing.

The star of the evening was baritone Scott Lee, giving a silly, lovable and vocally resplendent performance as Papageno. It’s a role that ideally calls for both robust singing and fluid comedic stage presence, and Lee keeps the audience laughing without ever stinting on musical values.

As Pamina, soprano Chelsea Lehnea sang with an excellent combination of tenderness and vocal power, and soprano Maggie Kinabrew tackled the ferociously challenging assignment of the Queen of the Night with all the fervor and precision the role demands.

As the prince Tamino, tenor Sahel Salam missed the sweetness of Mozart’s writing — he often sounded like he was belting something of Wagner’s — but came into his own in the more heroic passages of Act 2.

Bass Edwin Jhamaal Davis is Sarastro in “The Magic Flute.” Photo: Kristen Loken

Tenor Chance Jonas-O’Toole was a crisp and arresting Monostatos, bass Edwin Jhamaal Davis an imposing if vocally woolly Sarastro, and bass-baritone Le Bu a sonorous Speaker.

Especially thrilling were the respective vocal blends of the opera’s two trio ensembles — the Three Ladies (brightly and beautifully sung by Adia Evans, Erin Wagner and Veena Akama-Makia) and the Three Spirits (Olivia Prendergast, Maggie Reneé and Cody Bowers).

The San Francisco Opera Center has begun to explore new programming possibilities since the 2020 arrival of Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson and General Manager Markus Beam. Already this summer’s Merola — the first full schedule of live performances since before the pandemic shutdown — has brought performances dedicated to American song and Spanish-language opera.

But there is always a place for the standard repertoire as well, and this vivacious and expertly sung offering was a welcome reminder of why that is so.

“The Magic Flute”: Merola Opera Program. 3 pm Saturday, Aug. 6. $55-$80. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., SF 415-864-3330. www.merola.org



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