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

Opera song
Chelsea Lehnea (centre) as Pamina with (left to right) Olivia Prendergast, Maggie Reneé and Cody Bowers in the Merola opera program production of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’. Photo: Kristen Loken

“The Magic Flute” has its share of serious material, as Mozart channeled his new found enthusiasm for Freemasonry into a story about love, duty, wisdom and self-knowledge (with a little misogyny, sad to say). But to appreciate the comic brilliance of the opera, it helps to look at it through the eyes of young people.

In the audience for the superb performance given by the Merola opera program on Thursday August 4 – the first of 20 – was an opera enthusiast who looked about 8 or 9 years old. She sat with an array of four stuffed animals in her lap and reveled in every moment of the performance – laughing her head off at the funny parts, feeling the pain of the young lovers and scoffing with well-meaning indignation. deserved every time the booklet suggested that women are not to be trusted.

I know stuffed animals because I sat right behind her, but everyone in the theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts could hear the silvery peals of laughter that greeted each new gag. It was a welcome reminder of the joy that work can bring in the right hands.

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

Baritone Scott Lee as Papageno (left) and Ashley Marie Robillard in the Merola opera program production of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’. Photo: Kristin Loken

Conductor Kelly Kuo gave Mozart’s vivid score an elegant, energetic profile that kept the action going brightly, even as he made room for the darker, more thoughtful passages of the room.

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

In many ways, this was a traditionally crafted production. The Temple of Wisdom where the mage Sarastro holds court was once again adorned with Egyptian images, as well as some celestial maps as projections. The prince and princess looked like what we’ve come to expect from storybook characters, and the birdcatcher Papageno was decked out in all the avian regalia. I particularly liked the Three Spirits, with their silver lamé outfits and white wigs as if they had just taken a walk.

Soprano Maggie Kinabrew as the Queen of the Night in Merola’s opera program production of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ Photo: Kristen Loken

Yet even within these familiar trappings, the opera was bubbling with an infectious new sense of vitality and adventure. Every moment the story seemed to unfold in new and unpredictable directions.

None of this would have been possible without a deep and capable cast drawn from the young performers of this summer’s Merola program, the primary feed 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 a fluid comedic stage presence, and Lee kept the audience laughing without ever skimping on musical values.

As Pamina, soprano Chelsea Lehnea sang with an excellent combination of tenderness and vocal power, and soprano Maggie Kinabrew tackled the queen of the night’s ferociously difficult mission with fervor and precision. the role requires.

As Prince Tamino, the tenor Sahel Salam missed the sweetness of Mozart’s writing – he often sounded like he was singing something from Wagner – but revealed himself in the most heroic passages of Act 2. .

Bass Edwin Jhamaal Davis as Sarastro in the Merola opera program production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” Photo: Kristen Loken

Tenor Chance Jonas-O’Toole was a crisp and gripping Monostatos, bass Edwin Jhamaal Davis a towering but vocally woolly Sarastro, and bass-baritone Le Bu a sonorous speaker.

The respective vocal blends of the opera’s two trio ensembles were particularly exciting – the Three Ladies (brilliantly 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 exploring new programming possibilities since the 2020 arrivals of Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson and General Manager Markus Beam. Already this summer, Merola — the first full live performance schedule since before the pandemic shutdown — brought performances dedicated to American song and opera in Spanish.

But there’s always a place for standard repertoire too, and this lively, expertly sung offering was a welcome reminder of why that is so.

“The Magic Flute”: Merola opera program. 3 p.m. Saturday, August 6. $55 to $80. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., SF 415-864-3330. www.merola.org