Opera Reviews
24 June 2024
Untitled Document
A magical new production
by Sandra Bowdler
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte
Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House
18 March 2006

Photo: Branco GaicaFor the 50th Anniversary of Opera Australia (in various guises) and the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, the company has produced a, yes, truly magical new production of The Magic Flute. Directed by formerly expatriate Australian David Freeman, whose many significant productions include the Kirov's memorable Fiery Angel, it incorporates the talents of Legs on the Wall, a "physical theatre company" which specialises in spectacular dance and acrobatic movements. Some doubts had been expressed as to how well the operatic and circus-style genres would mesh, but in general it all worked brilliantly.

During the overture, the curtain opened in three directions, like an expanding window, to reveal a lush misty green setting, rather like Yodda's homeworld, with many trees and twisted vines, and strange birdlike forms flitting about them. Tamino entered in a richly embroidered red Chinese gown, to be pursued by a large dragon coming at him in sections - its head from the back, a claw from one side, body from the other. The three ladies, coutured like a cross between Valkyries and B-movie queens of outer space, dispatched a piece each. The Queen of the Night descended from above, seated on a crescent moon and resplendent in a shimmering silver-blue decollettée gown (it was a bit of a worry when Tamino seemed to get lost underneath this). Throughout much of the action, the greeny-grey acrobats contorted themselves among the vines, often at great heights; only during O zittre nicht from the star-flaming queen did this become distracting.

Photo: Branco GaicaPapageno was got up to resemble an ungainly chicken, with long drooping nose/beak, pot belly, plus fours and splayed feet. He appeared with a portable barbecue and 6-pack of a well known Australian brand of beer; not for the first time, we were regaled with a broad Australian caricature representing the Common Man. The three boys appeared first in casual outfits of baggy shorts and t-shirts with scooters and a skate board, next in pyjamas (one with a teddy) and finally in private school uniforms with straw boaters: a more subtle but still recognizably Australian depiction. Within the temple, a paneled wall filled the back of the stage, with eighteenth century Masonic motifs on some of the panels. Sarastro and his male followers wore impressive red and yellow robes. The ladies of the court however were rather bizarrely clad in white veils and a great assortment of skirts and jackets, some of them recalling Middle Eastern airline cabin crews. Tamino and Papageno were confined within a sort of wooden cabin opening off the back wall, which revolved alarmingly at suitably dramatic moments.

Presenting The Magic Flute for 21st century audiences does contain some challenges in dealing with what can be read as unappealing sexist and racist attitudes. This production did not completely avoid these problems, choosing to move quickly past those moments in the libretto. The arias were sung in German (with English surtitles) with spoken dialogue in English, somewhat modified to curtail some of those moments as well as to impart local flavour. Interestingly, when Monostatos was accused of having a soul as black as his face, the audience laughed, apparently at the absurdity of such an idea, which is encouraging.

Photo: Branco GaicaThe Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was conducted by OA's artistic director, Richard Hickox. His reading of the overture was delicate and well paced, and the playing continued to be graceful and economical without being too spare throughout. Tenor Jaewoo Kim presented a suitably dashing figure and sang sturdily, if not absolutely securely. For this matinee performance, soprano Hye Seoung Kwon made her debut, replacing the A cast Emma Matthews. Her voice was surprisingly full and rounded for someone with such a slight frame, and while not completely controlled, certainly promises great things for the future. Amelia Farrugia was a glittering Queen of the Night, even if her high Fs were not quite there. Stephen Richardson on the other hand was totally comfortable with Sarostro's lowest notes, and projected the appropriate benevolent authority. Likewise, Jud Arthur's Speaker was resonant and stalwart. Monostatos is a difficult role to bring off; he can be a total buffoon or totally menacing. Kanen Breen leaned towards the latter end of the spectrum, making Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden really creepy. The Three Ladies were sung with feisty enthusiasm; at this performance, Sally-Anne Russell was indisposed ... and so was her cover. Dominica Matthews (mezzo soprano) sat to one side of the stage with her leg in a plaster cast, and sang the role, while Elisa Wilson (soprano) acted, mimed the singing, and spoke the dialogue. Robert Adam, Harrison Collins and Nathan Greentree were the three enchanting trebles.

It was pleasing that this was such a comparatively youthful production. The singing was provided by a relatively young cast, the production was inventive and full of fresh details. This Saturday afternoon performance had quite a large number of children in the audience who were well behaved and seemed to enjoy the show. This all bodes well for future performances and future opera-loving audiences.

© 2006 Sandra Bowdler
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