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Mostly Magical Mozart 

Wednesday, Feb 18 1998
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Well, that was more like it.

After a season pretty far down in the operatic dumps so far, our aspiring if not yet perfect company has rediscovered enchantment at the most likely fountainhead, the music of Mozart. Last week's Magic Flute, even braving the Friday-the-13th curse for its opening night, may have had its flaws, but they were minor alongside the grand favors. From the moment conductor Julius Rudel led his orchestra into the overture, with the wind chords perfectly voiced and the strings dancing with each other in immaculate precision, you knew that this wasn't going to be an evening to join the sadnesses in the season's five previous outings. Nothing can rescue a sagging opera season better than the sublimity of Mozart's music sublimely dispatched.

This production, designed by the gadfly cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and staged by Sir Peter Hall, was new here in January 1993, the crown jewel in a season that also included Janacek's Makropoulos Case and Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream; shed a tear for enterprise. What passed for the competition in those days found the staging "clumsy," "incongruous" and "tedious"; I begged to differ. Look upon the opera, if you will, as an intermingling of lovemaking sacred and secular; what the Gerald Scarfe designs and the Peter Hall staging - now re-created by his assistant, Paul L. King - accomplished is to play out the colors in Mozart's score into their exact visual counterparts.

Children of all ages will find instant gratification in Scarfe's stage-filling serpent in the first scene and the parade of invented animals that dance to Tamino's flute later on; what I found even more gratifying was his capture of the iridescent colors in this lush score from one scene to the next, from the dark C-minor of Tamino's initial plight to the radiant C-major of trumpets and drums in the Trial Scene, from the lustrous darkness around the Queen of the Night to the sunlight that blazes on the orange-gold costumes of Sarastro's priests (with, however, their Planet of the Apes headdresses, which I don't quite understand) and the fantastic getup that keenly depicts Papageno's subtle mix of elf and earthling.

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The Magic Flute, with its famous built-in plot ambiguities, suffers much at the hands of producers, not to mention critics. Peter Sellars enraged and titillated a Glyndebourne audience by setting the work on the Los Angeles freeways and by eliminating all spoken dialogue. I have seen Jonathan Miller's setting in London's Masonic Lodge headquarters, done all in black and white, with the Queen as an interloping suffragette. Beni Montresor's 1966 New York City Opera production, probably now in tatters, accomplished what Scarfe has also done, translating the clarinets and horns of Mozart's orchestra into their visible complements. I have deplored the Metropolitan Opera's incongruous Marc Chagall sets - so laden with Chagall's own symbols that the opera should have been sung in Russian - and delighted in the David Hockney designs that have now replaced them (and can be had on video). The version now at the Music Center (through March 1) comes as close as any I've seen to honoring the subtle and supple magic that lies within this radiant score. It does, however, make certain demands; the spoken dialogue (in German) is here rendered uncut, including jokes that were already old in Vienna in 1791. One sidebar for today's world: The First Priest's "Ein Weib tut wenig, plaudert viel . . ." ("A woman does little and chatters lots") goes untranslated in the supertitles.

Greg Fedderly, who was the Monostatos in 1993, now sings the Tamino - in a strange red wig that looks as if it's on backward. He's a fine, intelligent singer, a credit to Peter Hemmings' intention of developing a repertory unit within the company and - since this was his third major role this season - obviously a handy man to have around. But I heard sounds last Friday that disturbed me, most of all a rough edge around the high tones that bespoke overwork, and that made me wonder about young singers cutting their operatic teeth in a 3,200-seat opera house. Gwendolyn Bradley, too long away, presented a rather stately Pamina, but broke hearts with her haunting "Ach, ich fuhl's." The Sarastro of Kenneth Cox I found somewhat underpowered; considering the majesty of his music (which Bernard Shaw noted as fit for the mouth of God), most people come to a Flute performance with some favored Sarastro in their ears: Alexander Kipnis, Wilhelm Strienz, Kurt Moll. It can't be easy.

Wolfgang Holzmair, he of all those superb Schubert and Schumann art-song recordings, was the Papageno: his first American operatic appearance, a wonderful performance both hilarious and wise - if, again, a little rough at the top early on. And Sally Wolf, who last season replaced Jane Eaglen in the last two performances of Norma, sang a Queen of the Night that included bull's-eyes on all but one of the murderous high F's but also included a strength of tone and phrasing not often encountered in the chirpier exponents of this role.

The 1993 production was conducted by nobody in particular; now we have Julius Rudel's marvelously colored, spirited dissertation on the music's unique wonders. By this distance, at least, our opera company has put the intervening years to good use.

At the University of Judaism's Gindi Auditorium up in Sepulveda Pass (now better known as Culture Gulch), the Philharmonic's chamber-music concerts - performed by orchestra members plus an occasional visit from the week's Music Center concerto soloist - have drawn large audiences and rewarded them handsomely. Chamber music, of course, breeds a secret kinship among its idolators almost comparable to that of opera nuts; the crowds at Gindi both stir and dispel memories of the 1950s at New York's YM-YWHA, with its buttoned-up worshipers at the shrine of Beethoven and the Budapest Quartet - German-accented elders glaring with territorial protectiveness at a college-age kid daring to breach their stronghold.

The Gindi audience is far less hidebound by either dress or age code; above all, these concerts are great fun. Drawing on the orchestra's resources allows the Gindi planners a wide range of instrumentation. Last week's concert, as good as it gets, included a quartet of wind players performing Mozart's wondrous E-flat Quintet with visiting pianist Stephen Kovacevich. A tiny but delicious Schubert String Trio raised the curtain; Schubert's glorious, garrulous Octet for Winds and Strings provided an hour well-spent at the close. I suspected that Kovacevich's Brahms performance at the Philharmonic the week before was sabotaged by elements beyond his control; the mellow, affectionate chamberishness of his performance this time confirmed my suspicions.

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