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Tuesday 19 November 2019
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Picoplat makes opera magic

The Picoplat Classical Music Development Foundation’s TT Opera Festival came to a close earlier this month after its customary vocal masterclass, a young artist showcase and, of course, the staging of an operatic work.

Short and sweet, like the run of the festival itself, was the Picoplat Young Artist Collective’s abridged production of Mozart’s timeless opera, The Magic Flute, which made a four-show run during the group’s occupancy at the newly-opened Government Campus Plaza in Port of Spain.

Last year’s Tales of Hoffmann was a hit with its large cast, layered storyline and a plot than ran for close to three hours.

With The Magic Flute, however, quite a number of liberties were taken with the music and the spoken dialogue, not for the sake of being picky but for simplification and brevity. In its unaltered state, the opera runs for a total of three hours with bits that could be considered just a tad heavy according to Picoplat artistic director and Queen of the Night, soprano Natalia Dopwell.

Mozart, a fervent member of the Freemasonic Lodge, wove concepts related to the group’s principles into the plot and these are championed by the story’s heroes. In this version, merely a skeleton of these elements as blatant references to the Masons still remains, perhaps only detectable by those who are familiar with the original work.

This year’s version – a revival of the, also abridged, staging of the opera in 2013 – restored some of the original material and a couple of the missing characters.

Although there were some bits that still didn’t make it off the cutting room floor, we were left with a neatly- tailored rendering of Mozart’s–and perhaps the world’s–favourite opera in a production whose magic was not snuffed out by its brevity.

Minimal staging was complemented by a series of paintings interspersed with looped animated sequences as backdrops. Margaret Sheppard’s costumes provided an eclectic canvas of cultures from character to character, with Pamina channelling a young Cleopatra to Papageno’s costume evoking the period during which the opera was written.

Eschewing the overture, musical director June Nathaniel took us right into the action, which begins as Tamino, the prince, is being chased through the forest by a fierce dragon.

Rory Wallace’s solid tenor rang through the auditorium as he manoeuvred away from the creature, played by choreographer Triston Wallace in a costume that evoked the dragon- like characters seen on J’Ouvert morning.

Rory Wallace, a Ball State University doctoral candidate in music, portrayed the prince as a gallant and youthful monarch as he trumpeted much of his lines with the gusto of a classic TV hero.

UTT Academy of the Performing Arts student Jason Lawrence was Papageno, the Queen’s love-starved birdcatcher and much of the opera’s comic relief. With some tentative movements on stage, Lawrence’s approach to the character was not the conventional class-clown rendering seen by others who’ve played the role. Rather, he shone in moments of comic timing. Some of them, created by the updating of the script.

Lawrence delivered a crisp baritone that never faltered and did a good job of holding its own in the ensemble pieces.

Spoiler alert: Papageno does find his mate as he is joined by soprano Annelise Kelly as Papagena–go figure–in a sweet and spirited performance of the popular duet toward the end of the opera.

The Three Ladies, emissaries to the Queen, were flawlessly played by sopranos Shannon Navarro and Sabrina Marks and mezzo-soprano Maegan Pollonais. Cunning yet charming, the trio–who often moved as one devious unit– maintained a seamless dialogue as they slunk across the stage in villainous glee. Navarro, a graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama in Musical Theatre; Marks, a longtime student of June Nathaniel’s Key Academy of Music who has starred in a number of Picoplat productions and Pollonais, a doctoral candidate in music at Ball State University, each moved with a devilish enjoyment of their own.

Pamina, the imprisoned princess fated to fall for Tamino was played by recent UTT Artist Diploma graduate, soprano Tamika- Diandra Lewis, who brought both a tenderness and a tenacity to the character. Lewis’ measured choices reflected a contemplative process as she channelled palpable sadness during her aria in the second half.

Tenor Richard Taylor as the vile Monostatos, who held Pamina captive and lusted after the young princess did a good job as the calculating and mischievous character.

The youth were well represented in Denique Robertson, Clarice Beeput and Misty-Ann Knights who played the trio of spirit guides who led some of the wandering characters on the right path at various points in the plot. Their angelic voices blended in harmony as they seemed to always appear at just the right time in contrast to the Three Ladies who, more often than not, were up to no good.

The music of The Magic Flute is known for including some of the highest and lowest notes in the soprano and bass repertoire, respectively. The role of the wicked Queen of the Night soars up into the stratosphere and calls for an arrow-like precision while the role of good and wise Sarastro demands that the singer delves into the gravelly depths of his instrument. This could make casting a challenge but, with our proud pool of local operatic talent, Picoplat made it happen.

Natalia Dopwell, as the Queen, appeared on stage as a force of energy, rendering the role with all the requisite rage of a villain and the grace of a monarch to temper it. Shellon Antoine as Sarastro, antithesis to the Queen, was a serene presence whose arias– unlike the fast-paced, agitated rhythms of the Queen’s pieces–offer a reverent, hymn-like calm. Antoine’s rumbling bass caressed the lowest notes of his pieces with graceful ease and clarity.

Director Dr Helmer Hilwig instructed the cast in this interpretation of the classic work. June Nathaniel led a guest team of top-tier accompanists– pianist, Byron Burford-Phearse; flautist, Martina Chow and Demika Lawrence on the timpani and glockenspiel.

The choral pieces were performed by the singers of the Young Artist Collective, many of whom were soloists in dual roles as choristers.

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