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OPERA REVIEW

NEC’s ‘Flute’ magical but uneven

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2010

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The New England Conservatory’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute’’ demonstrates how far conceptual flair can carry an opera: not far enough. It looked good; and, with some fine singing and polished sounds from the orchestra (conducted by John Greer), it also sounded good. But the dramatic whole was frustratingly inert.

Director Greg Smucker threw the story into a video-game, science-fiction setting. Jon Savage’s circuit-board sets and John Cuff’s nifty light effects channeled “Tron’’; Seth Bodie’s costumes ranged from a flamboyantly cyberpunk Queen of the Night to Monostatos’s saurian horns and tail, recalling the Mario Brothers nemesis King Koopa. (After all, Tamino, the opera’s hero, does navigate multiple levels of challenges in order to rescue the princess.) It was a mishmash of fantasy styles (the sage Sarastro and his followers in a Mayan temple? OK), but the visuals had a gee-whiz energy.

Little of that energy translated into the staging. Serious characters were often passive ciphers; comic characters were saddled with half-hearted business, scattering instead of centering their personalities. They might be archetypes — the heroic Tamino; his timorous sidekick, the bird-catching Papageno; the beautiful princess, Pamina; the light-and-dark poles of authority, Sarastro and the Queen of the Night — but even archetypes need to be embodied and projected. Physical hesitancy undermined a dramatic arc reliant on immediacy. Relationships the audience must instantly accept — Tamino and Pamina’s love at first sight, the Queen’s deep sway over her princess daughter — lacked the necessary groundwork to register.

It was a missed opportunity, given the promising singing. Soprano Hae-Ji Chang, as Pamina, was the most accomplished, her voice full of silvery color and nuance. Herman Berisso’s Papageno displayed similar elegance, an estimable match in his duets with Chang, with superb diction and glimpses of nice comic timing. Soyoung Park delivered the Queen’s pyrotechnics with crystalline ease and verve.

Some singers showed glimmers of thespian initiative. The Three Ladies (Rebecca Conviser, Anne Byrne, and Samantha Weppelmann) had funny, conspiratorial flashes of action-star sass; the Three Spirits (Kristin Brown, Kara Terry, and Lila Palmer) leavened arbitrary blocking with sparks of youthful bemusement. Alex Nishibun played the nefarious Monostatos with vigorous glee; as Papagena, Kristen Abaquin found opportunities for sharp bubbliness. And guest artist Eric D. Johnson, a professor at Syracuse University, efficiently conjured Sarastro’s gravitas with posture and stillness.

It was tenor Thomas Suber, as Tamino, who was most ill-served by the production’s inattention to stage presence. Nervous from the get-go, he never quite got his breath under his voice, off-balance both vocally and physically. But he didn’t seem to have been given the tools to recover; there was no basic physical conception of the hero, no baseline of body language and bearing that might have helped ground his voice along with the character.

It’s tricky to critique student productions, which, by definition, don’t come with the collective stage experience that directors might rely on to fill in dramatic outlines. But, ideally, such productions should showcase both the quality of the students and the quality of their training. This is the second NEC production this year (following last spring’s “Don Giovanni’’) in which obvious musical talent and preparation was cast adrift amid unfocused staging. Opera is theater; and the theatrical side needs a stronger foundation than simply survival of the fittest.

Matthew Guerreri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail .com.

NEW ENGLAND CONSERVATORY OPERA THEATRE Performing Mozart’s “The Magic Flute’’

At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, Friday