Sendak restorations highlight “The Magic Flute” in Portland Opera production

by James Bash James Bash writes articles for a variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, Open Spaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music.James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America ( and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy. 14.05.2016

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” sounded better than ever in Portland Opera’s opening night performance (May 6th) because of the sets that were designed by Maurice Sendak, the beloved children’s book illustrator and author who created “Where the Wild Things Are.” Sendak’s whimsical scenery elicited numerous oohs and aahs from the audience at Keller Auditorium and seemed to inspire the performers as well. Sung in English from a translation by Andrew Porter, the high-spirited production was led by the company’s General Director Christopher Mattaliano who was the cornerstone in resurrecting the Sendak scenery.

Mattaliano’s link to Sendak extends back to 1980, when he was the assistant director to Frank Corsaro for the Houston Grand Opera production that premiered Sendak’s scenery and costumes. Mattaliano became a personal friend of Sendak as well as the stage director for revivals of the productions over the next 25 years. But in 2005, Hurricane Wilma destroyed the sets, which had been stored in a warehouse in Florida. Mattaliano solicited funds from several foundations, including the Maurice Sendak Foundation, to purchase the production for Portland Opera and have it restored/realized by Neil Peter Jampolis. Jampolis was the artist who did the original scenic paintings from the 60-plus illustrations that Sendak created for the 1980 HGO production. The result was fantastic!

The Sendak-inspired scrims were stunningly beautiful and whimsical with faux Egyptian images, lush foliage, lazy stone ruins, and animals with humanoid faces. All were depicted in soft pastels that often trended into the brown-green-blue range, and some scenes included a starry night with a full moon. Sendak’s costumes for the Queen of the Night and her attendant ladies were brighter than the background while Papageno was bedecked in a traditional manner with a bird headdress, cage on his back, and a feathery coat. The entire enterprise was wonderfully accented by the lighting design of Jampolis.

John Moore pulled out all of the stops in the role of Papageno, combining a big-hearted voice with impeccable comic antics. He could act like an impudent teenager one minute, a scaredy-cat the next, and a gullible blowhard after that – but all the while winning over the audience with his down-to-earthiness.

As the noble Tamino, Shawn Mathey was the veritable image of rectitude and forthrightness, yet he sang with ardor and a gorgeous tone. Maureen McKay fashioned a spirited and appealing Pamina. When she implored the heavens over the possible loss of Tamino, everyone in the house felt her desperation.

Tom McNichols conveyed a superior yet caring Sarastro with a warm and rich basso profundo. Aline Kutan hit all of the stratospheric notes in the famous revenge aria for the Queen of the Night, but she didn’t show enough ferocity in her demeanor.

Felicia Moore, Angela Niederloh, and Abigail Dock sang superbly as the three lady attendants, but Niederloh was by far the best in the acting department, hamming up her lust for Tamino while trying to fend off her sisters. Catherine Olson, Aishani Saha, and Kathleen Taylor displayed refinement even when enforcing the temple rules as the three Spirits

Marcus Shelton created a light, friendly version of Monostatos – more of a deluded and sort of helpless chap who is obsessed by the beauty of Pamina. Vocally he started small but ended large, and he won over the audience with his athleticism, prancing about and launching himself horizontally into the arms of Sorastros’ men. Katrina Galka added a charmingly light touch to the role of Papagena.

Music Director George Manahan led the orchestra well with a refreshing pace. The chorus sounded robust and well-blended, thanks to the preparation of Chorus Master Nicholas Fox, who made a couple of well-timed appearances from the orchestra pit to hand a goblet of wine to Papageno.

Photos by Cory Weaver.

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