Review: The Magic Flute, performed by Opera Australia

My sister in law took me to the Opera Australia production of The Magic Flute this evening.

It was a lot of fun.  This particular version was rather truncated and very much aimed at families.  We didn’t know this when we were booking, but we aren’t complaining, because it was very cleverly done, and we just loved all the bird puppets that floated around Papageno and Papagena at appropriate moments.  

I’ve never seen a full production of The Magic Flute, largely because it’s by Mozart, and I have rather a troubled relationship with him – I mean, on the one hand, he wrote the Queen of the Night Aria, which is awesome, even if I don’t get to sing it.  On the other hand he wrote an awful lot of piano sonatas which all sound exactly the same, and he does, on occasion, write arias which are just like his piano sonatas.  Which is to say, they are somewhat less exciting than watching grass dry.  Actually, they are definitely more boring than that makes them sound.

Sorry, I got distracted by my irritation with Mozart, which has only grown since I discovered that he *can* actually write interesting music, he just didn’t bother very often.  Where was I?

Ah yes.  So this version was sung in English, and the translation was in fact into quite informal, everyday English, with quite a lot of puns and jokes thrown in.  Lots of speech, too, which I didn’t expect from Mozart opera – I’m not sure if that’s how it always is or whether they decided that recitative wasn’t accessible.  And it must be said, the singers all did a phenomenal job of enunciating – there were surtitles, but we didn’t need them, which is highly unusual. 

The set and costuming was absolutely gorgeous.  Apparently, it was based on a version done by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and there were a lot of really beautiful masks and puppets, which were colourful and graceful and rather a highlight of the show.  There were also a lot of vaguely freemasonic hieroglyphic symbols all over everything, and the Queen of the Night had these fantastic, enormous, double wing-like things as part of her costume.  Spectacular is really the word for this production – it was all about spectacle.  Though I had a hard time keeping a straight face whenever Sarastro and his priests were on stage, because they were all in these white and gold robes and went processing around looking so very Anglo-Catholic, and then they would open their mouths and start singing about Isis and Osiris, and I would crack up.

The acting and singing were pretty good, though Tamino was clearly having trouble – it was the last performance of the run, so perhaps he was tired, but his voice was pretty strained even when he wasn’t singing especially high notes.  Which was a pity.  Also, I’m not sure if Tamino is quite so much of an idiot in the full version of the opera, but he was such an easy mark – he believes Papageno when he claims he rescued him, believes the ladies when they say that they did, falls in love at a glance with Pamina’s portrait, instantly believes the Queen of the Night when she tells him to go and rescue her kidnapped daughter, and then promptly believes the first person who tells him Sarastro is actually the good guy.  All without so much as a scrap of evidence.  Anyone could convince him of anything – and he’s supposedly the strong-willed one with good judgment.

(actually, one weakness of this production is that by interval, my sister in law was still convinced that the Queen of the Night was the good one, and Sarastro was the evil one, and was greatly surprised when I told her that actually, the Queen of the Night was supposed to be the villain… suggesting that they didn’t do a very good job of conveying their characters early on.  And, let’s face it, Pamina wasn’t being threatened with ravishment by people in her mother’s house, was she?)

Papageno, however, was wonderful – a very good comic actor with a really lovely baritone voice which he knew how to use.  He was my absolute favourite in this show, and I was interested to see that he got top billing, or at least was the last one out to take his bow.  I think he got more stage time than anyone else.  He was hilarious when he was supposed to be keeping his vow of silence, and his duet with Papagena at the end with the puppet birds flying around them and out over the audience was one of the best things in the show (I also really loved Papagena, and was disappointed that she only got one duet and no other chance to sing at all) – sweet and funny and beautiful.

Sarastro was very good too, and also familiar – I’m going to have to look him up (aha, he was on Operatunity Oz, so that would explain it).  And I loved the trio who played the Queen of the Night’s ladies.  Pamina was good, though I am currently noticing people putting ‘h’s where no ‘h’ should go while singing, and she and Papageno were both guilty of this at times.

Of course, one really goes to this opera for the Queen of the Night, and my problem is that I have been spoiled by Natalie Dessay.  This soprano did a creditable job, but she worried about running out of voice for the top notes, with the result that she did, in fact, run out of voice and miss her first top F#.  The second time through, though, she threw caution to the wind, and put in a whole lot of extra top notes that weren’t even in the music in addition to the F#, and did much better.  I suspect the fact that it was the last performance both contributed to her uncertainty and allowed her to go all out on that last aria.

So all in all, a good performance, and a really fabulous production.  Of course, it has mostly made me want to see a full-length version to see if it makes more sense and also to work out what they missed.  I’m really hoping, for example, that something got taken out of the trial by fire and water, because if it didn’t, that was the most pathetic trial by anything that I have ever seen – seriously, 15 seconds of music, and then they both sing about how oh, yes, they have defeated this trial with the flute, and now they will overcome the next one and live happily ever after?  That’s barely trying.

I think I might see if the Natalie Dessay version is available on DVD…

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