The Royal Opera plays its 'Magic Flute'
Los Angeles — After the unfortunate new production of Puccini's ''Turandot'' that served to introduce the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, to the United States, the company redeemed itself in two other operas. In them, Covent Garden, here at the Olympic Arts Festival, exhibited the special ensemble profile and excellence that have kept it in the ranks of major international companies.
The vehicles for this elevated exhibitionism were Benjamin Britten's ''Peter Grimes'' and Mozart's ''Die Zauberflote'' (''The Magic Flute''), both seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Ironically, one of the principal reasons for this excellence was also a major cause of trouble in the Puccini - the Covent Garden music director and conductor , Sir Colin Davis. His ''Grimes'' has deepened over the years, with a richer sense of texture, a more vital feel for the work's dramatic thrust, and ominous underpinnings.
Sir Colin is also an esteemed Mozartean, so it was no surprise that his ''Flute'' would be thoughtful. Unexpected was the masterly manner in which he struck that rare yet oh-so-right balance between the uproarious humor and the staid ceremonial splendor of Mozart's unique valedictory opera. Sir Colin kept a musical smile even in the somber moments - so that the rituals (so often made pretentious and turgid) had a true place in an essentially fantasylike framework.
The conductor appeared to agree with designer Jurgen Rose that this is, first and foremost, an opera bathed in beauty. The sounds Sir Colin conjured from the Royal Opera Orchestra were as consistent an aural feast as the Rose sets proved to be visually. The color blue pervades the production, which seems unerringly right for this music.
Director August Everding has pushed the action up into Mozart's day. The Masons become a serious philosophical order, rather than the customary exotic, faintly Egyptian priesthood. The three genies first enter dressed like little Mozarts, white wigs and all. Papageno bumptious good-naturedness never smacks of the simpleton (as too often happens with the part).
The Queen of the Night has two spectacular entrances. The magic includes such things as statuary coming to life, walls vanishing, etc., all fitted effortlessly into this ''update.'' But most impressive in Everding's production - which shone through despite the myriad technical problems that befell the production's opening night - was its tangible humanity.
Humanity also marked the Elijah Moshinsky production of ''Peter Grimes.'' This acclaimed staging is a modern, lean, minimal concept that puts the action in a vague box with little sense of a specific village, which is really so crucial a part of the opera. Overall, it is really more admirable than cherishable, but at all times Moshinsky keeps the characters cleanly, tightly in focus. Even in the choral ensembles, principal singers are down where they can be heard over the chorus. And this leanness forces the audience to focus even more directly on Grimes.
This focus is galvanic when the Grimes is Jon Vickers - who has owned the part since he first assumed it 17 years ago. He inhabits the role, and brings it achingly, passionately to life in the sort of towering performance that will be discussed in the book of legends.
Much of his supporting cast was excellent, from the warm, compassionate Balstrode of Thomas Stewart to the malevolently nosy Mrs. Sedley of Patricia Payne and the seedy bumptiousness of Thomas Allen's Mr. Keene, among so many others. Only Heather Harper's melodramatic, inconsistently sung Ellen Orford seemed out of place here. And the Covent Garden chorus finally had a chance to really shine and show why it is so respected as a singing-acting ensemble.
''Flute'' gives it less chance to shine, but the rich sounds it made were a joy. Also a joy was Mr. Allen's incandescent Papageno - funny, silly (with some up-to-date comic asides thrown in for good measure), wonderfully well sung. Robert Lloyd's healthy, rock-solid bass made Sarastro's low-lying music particularly pleasurable. Helen Donath's ravishing, warm, feminine Pamina and Stuart Burrows's mellifluous, suave Tamino all added luster to the evening. Only last-minute replacement Ulrike Steinsky's Queen of the Night proved histrionically underpowered and vocally erratic, though her thrustful sense of the words gave the performance some life.
All in all, Covent Garden showed itself off as the ensemble house par excellence, that ill-fated ''Turandot'' notwithstanding. Even so dynamic a star as Vickers fitted neatly into this wonderful ensemble.