What Difference Does a Cast Make?

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A Magic Flute, the director Peter Brook's adaptation of Mozart's opera, now at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, removes the orchestra in favor of a piano as the sole accompaniment. This was less a budget constraint and more of an artistic choice. The minimal musical accompaniment keeps the orchestration closer to the ground, as it were, allowing pianist Franck Krawczyk to easily turn the ship around—if need be—with far more agility and speed than a conductor would be able to do in a multi-person orchestral setting.

It also added to the improvisatory nature of Brook, Krawczyk and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s free adaptation of Mozart’s singspiel. Pretending for a moment that a centuries-old score did not exist, what’s to keep Papageno’s first aria, “Der Vogelfänger bin Ich ja,” from becoming an abridged duet between Papageno and Tamino? In Brook’s own explanation, music was freely used and substituted in early operatic performances; productions in the 18th Century were not subservient to the same years of tradition.

Which is why I always find the idea of “ownership” of a particular role, aria or opera a patently ridiculous one. Sure, several singers excel in parts that leave others falling short of the demands and expectations of the music.

Having now heard A Magic Flute for a second time on Sunday with a second cast, Leïla Benhamza, a skilled actress, seemed to be a few steps behind the Queen of the Night’s treacherous coloraturas and alpine high notes. In the same cast, Virgile Frannais did not boast a star turn in Papageno as his colleague, Thomas Dolié, had achieved earlier in the week. In light of this, I heard a more collaborative volley of notes back and forth between the baritone and Krawczyk at the piano, a conversation between singer and instrument, during “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen.” However, other performances—such as soprano Agnieszka Slawinska as Pamina, were equally ethereal in their own distinct ways.

Remarkable, too, how a varied distribution of performance strengths (and weaknesses) can change the entire effect of a performance or production. In the original cast of A Magic Flute, Dolié’s Papageno was the audience’s surest ally: We saw the worlds the other characters inhabit through his ever widening eyes. On Sunday, however, the spitfire Slawinska gave us a heroic Pamina as opposed to the more hypnotic interpretation of Jeanne Zaepfell’s. Here was a princess who would refuse to be martyred—one got the impression that she would be able to save herself even had Papageno and Tamino never come along. Sarastro’s line “A man must guide a woman’s heart, without him a woman cannot live” came off as more ironic than sage.

In opera, we speak of the constant fight between words and music. But without the musician to combine both elements and interpret them, the tree never falls in a forest—regardless of whether or not someone is there to perceive the sound—and the effectiveness of the opera or its production is a moot point.

“What a difference a cast can make,” wrote The New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini last April when a first-rate second cast of Patricia Racette, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel reprised a dismal Luc Bondy production of Tosca. Sure, in the seven months between opening night and the return of this production, a few light changes were made here and there—either of Bondy’s own volition or at the request of the replacement cast members.

But it was not just the absence of Scarpia mounting a statue of the Virgin Mary that made a second viewing of the shabby little shocker more palatable: It was the singers behind the lecher, the painter and the diva. In the words of The New York Observer’s Zachary Woolfe, the production’s original Tosca—Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, “sounded uneasier…than she looked” onstage. Meanwhile, Racette’s luminous ascension to the role was all right—in the sense that she could do no wrong as Floria Tosca.

This is, of course, an extreme example: Mattila is, in her own right, a formidable singer with her own set of strengths. Likewise, one hardly expects Racette to sing a textbook rendition of Leonore in Fidelio. Naturally, a well-suited singer replacing a miscast colleague will elevate a production. But what about those productions seen time and again at the Met with equally talented and apt, albeit no less varied, singers? In the course of a highly concentrated twelve days, the Lincoln Center Festival’s A Magic Flute illustrates what happens over the course of a season or multiple years in houses such as the Met: How do different artists shape and reshape the art?