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Scampering thunderbolts: ‘The Magic Flute’ at Portland State University

PSU Opera produces an "enchanting" version of the beloved Mozart fantasy, with vibrant singing and some kids who almost steal the scene.

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Sarastro (John Gladen, center) and priests in “The Magic Flute” at Portland State Opera, April 21 - 30. Photo by Chad Lanning.
Sarastro (John Gladen, center) and priests in “The Magic Flute” at Portland State Opera, April 21 – 30. Photo by Chad Lanning.

PSU Opera pulled out all the stops to deliver an outstanding Magic Flute on opening night, April 20, at Lincoln Concert Hall. The enchanting production, directed by Linda Brovsky, featured an exceptional cast of strong singers, plus children in fanciful flora and fauna costumes who almost stole some scenes.

The fluid interaction among all of the characters, plus Rory Breshears’s evocative projections on Larry Larsen’s straightforward set, helped to propel the storyline forward. Excellent lighting by Peter West framed the extravaganza, which included colorful costumes by Paige Hanna. Chuck Dillard commanded the PSU Opera Orchestra with judicious tempos and dynamics. 

Leading the principal singers was Reid Duhrkoop as Tamino, the prince who becomes lost in a magical land where he encounters a giant snake, three helpful Ladies, and a goofy birdcatcher before starting a quest to find his true love. Duhrkoop’s lyrical and virile tenor made arias such as “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” extra-special. Soprano Tess Wix created a passionate Pamina with a vibrant and warm voice that quickly swept up the audience. Her singing of “Ach, ich fühls” wonderfully captured the desolation of her predicament, thinking that Tamino has deserted her.

Baritone Johnny Derby’s Papageno got better and better as the opera progressed. His comic timing in the scene where Papageno attempts suicide was perfectly executed, and his elation in discovering Papagena, sung and acted with panache by soprano Angela Tinio, gushed convincingly with over-the-top charm.

A highlight reel of the performance would have to include March Steiger’s strikingly clear soprano in the Queen of the Night, especially the stratospheric notes of “Der Hölle Rache,” in which she threatens to disown her daughter, Pamina, if Pamina does not kill Sarastro, the priest of the sun.

The Queen of the Night (March Steiger) and her daughter, Pamina (Abigail Marine) in “The Magic Flute” at Portland State Opera, April 21 - 30. Photo by Chad Lanning.
The Queen of the Night (March Steiger) and her daughter, Pamina (Abigail Marine) in “The Magic Flute” at Portland State Opera, April 21 – 30. Photo by Chad Lanning.

John Gladen conveyed the gravitas, generosity, and goodness of Sarastro, expertly delving into the sub-basement of his basso profundo to reach the lowest notes of “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” with conviction. Avesta Mirashrafi took on the very tough role of Monostaos, the bad guy who wants to rape Pamina. He made it menacing but not too much, striking just the right balance.

First Lady Isabella Kerr Moore, Second Lady Mercy Hallman, and Third Lady Christina Mata added first-rate singing and interacted with each other terrifically, especially when they were fending off each other in trying to lay claim to Tamino in the opening scene.

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The Queen of the Night’s attendants, Krista Schaeffer, Christina Mata, and Isabella Kerr Moore (l-r), known as the Three Ladies, in “The Magic Flute” at Portland State Opera, April 21 - 30, 2023. Photo by Chad Lanning.
The Queen of the Night’s attendants, from left, Krista Schaeffer, Isabella Kerr Moore, and Christina Mata, known as the Three Ladies, in “The Magic Flute” at Portland State Opera, April 21 – 30, 2023. Photo by Chad Lanning.

The blend of singing by Megan Wakefield, Katie Manullang, and Vinny Taylor gave the First, Second, and Third Spirits an ethereal quality. Speaker Izaak Thoms, First Priest Noe Ramierez Perez, Second Priest Ethan Vaughan, and soldiers Serena Mason, Dominic Mallari, and Kelly Pohl contributed with distinction.

The orchestra struggled at times with intonation but played with great spirit and delivered the music with gusto.  

One of the keys to keep this opera from dragging was the involvement of children. Kudos to Brovsky for using them as scampering thunderbolts to move the action, and to augment the scenes with cats, birds, and frogs. Brovsky also managed to get the giant snake off the stage by misdirecting the audience’s attention (or at least this reviewer’s) to the left side and deftly removing the snake from the right. 

The projections of temples, starry nightfall, fire, and ocean waves transitioned seamlessly so that the production came across as all-of-one-piece, and the audience at the end erupted with enthusiastic cheers.

Sarastro (John Gladen) with priests and ensemble in “The Magic Flute” at Portland State Opera, April 21 - 30. Photo by Chad Lanning.
Sarastro (John Gladen) with priests and ensemble in “The Magic Flute” at Portland State Opera, April 21 – 30. Photo by Chad Lanning.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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