11 September 2014

The Magic Flute - Opera Australia (Review)

| John Lombard
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Opera Australia’s Indiana Jones-themed production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” swaps the forest setting for a mysterious tomb in a kid-friendly, accessible staging with amazing singing.

The most striking thing about this production is the adventure serial styling. This was a savvy design choice: this is a smallish production (regional tours are planned) but the Egyptian setting gives it a lot of character and a sense of fun. For example, at one point on his journey hero Tamino is confronted by a horde of wild animals. This can be (and often is) elaborately staged, but here the stage was peppered with stuffed animals for Tamino to quake at. It’s quirky – but it works.

Not that the setting always makes sense. At the start of the opera Tamino is unconscious and at the mercy of a vengeful mummy only to be saved by a quick-thinking soprano trio: a nurse, a secretary and a maid. Wandering around an Egyptian tomb. And then bird-watcher Papageno enters the scene. A bird-watcher. Wandering around an Egyptian tomb. A few spoken asides tried to tie the setting to the plot but the two were only ever loosely roped. Fortunately the liveliness of the period setting compensates for the occasional confusion in the plot.

Ultimately we go to the opera for the singing, and this was fantastic. The Magic Flute has some spectacular soprano numbers, in particular the giddy vocal gymnastics of the Queen of the Night (Regina Daniel), and it was thrilling to hear it performed live. Nicholas Jones was impressive as the Lantern-jawed Tamino and Andrew Moran came close to stealing the show as blokey, catastrophe-prone bird-watcher Papageno. Benjamin Rasheed was imposing (yet comic) as villainous Monostatos – but unfortunately not always completely audible.

Suitably for a production with potential to appeal to children, it was performed in English. I had mixed feelings about this. For one thing, I loved being able to understand what the characters were saying without having to read surtitles. Unfortunately what they had to say was sometimes quite banal. This is opera so it’s not unusual for a character to repeat the same line of dialogue several times in a row. At the start Tamino tells us repeatedly that he is afraid because he could die. Yes, Tamino, we can see the mummy attacking you – telling us even once was redundant. And even in English, the dialogue is not always understandable. A soprano’s delivery is so different from ordinary speech (or even what we hear in musicals) that even in English it’s a battle to understand them. Surtitles were still a bit necessary.

But in the end it doesn’t really matter – audiences know that opera is all about top-notch singing and this production delivers. The Indiana Jones vibe is mostly surface, but it’s a fun and fresh surface that is sure to get the opera a lot of attention. An excellent introduction to Mozart (or opera) that will still entertain veteran fans.

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One of the few operas I like, but sadly the regional tour has finished:(https://opera.org.au/ontour/regional_tour_2014
However the King and I is still running, although you have to go to Syd or Melb to see it. Apparently it is fantastic!

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