"Ever since, as a boy," wrote Bernard Shaw, "I first breathed the air of the transcendental regions at a performance of Mozart's Zauberflöte,
I have been proof against the garish splendors and alcoholic excitements of the ordinary stage...." The first thing that needs to be said about this quote is that Shaw didn't see the Zauberflöte
on now at the S.F. Opera. The second thing is that he's arguing in favor of artist-philosophers, as opposed to mere artists, and The Magic Flute
oozes a philosophy that can be overwhelmingly beautiful as well as didactic and wonky, depending on who sings the songs. In this respect, Manfred Hemm is the most obvious disappointment in the current show as Sarastro, the high priest, because he lacks the range in his bass to sing the didactic lines seductively. Yelda Kodalli, as the Queen of the Night, can't manage the impossibly high notes in her arias without squeaking a little. Anton Scharinger knows his job as Papageno, the flighty birdcatcher, but his ease as an actor (and baritone) still can't fill in all the funny, clownish corners of the role. (If anything, he has too much authority.) Roberto Saccà warms up to a fine performance as Tamino. His counterpart, Mary Mills, displays the most consistently shimmering vocal grace as Pamina; her duets with Papageno and Tamino are high points. Some of David Hockney's sets (especially the deep-shadowed Masonic temple scenes) are also stunning, but instead of raising the audience into those "transcendental regions" Shaw liked to visit, this opera, I'm afraid, is only pretty.