Opera / The Magic Flute, Opera Australia. At Sydney Opera House until March 16. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.
While waiting for its new artistic director, Jo Davies, to take up her position, Opera Australia commissioned guest creative director Lindy Hume to curate the 2024 summer season.
This production of Mozart’s, The Magic Flute, is Kate Gaul’s Sydney Opera House debut in the role of director.
Perhaps in acknowledgement of the opera’s Singspiel origins, Gaul has chosen to repurpose a setting designed by Michael Yeargan for Opera Australia’s 1989 production of Werther for her production.
Interestingly, Hume will also use this setting for her production of a very different Mozart opera, Idomeneo, which will have its Opera House premiere later this month. Both directors have collaborated with design consultant Richard Roberts and costume designer Anna Cordingley on these productions.
Michael Yeargan’s very formal white setting consists of three tall walls, each with a central doorway crowned by a classical pediment. The entire stage is carpeted in green astro-turf.
For those scenes set in different locations, curtains suspended on wires strung between the side walls are whisked into place by cast members to provide backgrounds for shadow-puppet images of dragons or birds. The theatre’s black fire curtain is called into service, as well as shiny strip curtains and footlights all of which create an intriguing effect of watching a performance happening within another performance.
This effect is enhanced by having Papageno interpreted as an ocker tradie, replete with esky and paint-splattered overalls, who unwittingly finds himself trapped in an operatic pantomime performance.
Ben Mingay, an accomplished musical theatre performer, is clever casting as Papageno. Although his rich baritone might lack the finesse of more seasoned opera performers, his immediate connection with the audience, and the freshness of his Papageno interpretation, more than compensates, highlighted by his delivery of Kate Gaul and Michael Gow’s witty new English libretto translation.
The vocal finesse in this production is delivered by Stacey Alleaume as Pamina. Always an artistic singer, Alleaume’s every aria is sheer joy. Even so, her artistry is most effectively displayed in the tender quartet she shares with the three spirit children, Zev Mann, Abbey Hammond and James Valanidas, who persuade Pamina not to kill herself for love.
Elsewhere the singing is efficient rather than exciting, with stand-out moments delivered by Giuseppina Grech with her glittering rendition of the Queen of the Night aria; Kanen Breen’s venal Monostatos; Jennifer Black with her cheeky, show-girl Papagena and Michael Smallwood’s sweetly sung Tamino.
Jane Ede, Indyana Schneider and Ruth Strutt capture their share of laughs with their broad panto-style turn as the three ladies, while David Parkin, resplendently costumed as a Jesus-like figure, dominates in all his appearances with his vocally impressive, if dramatically stolid, Sarastro.
Other pleasures are provided by the magnificent Opera Australia chorus and the Opera Australia Orchestra, with its sparkling rendition of Mozart’s score under the baton of Austrian-Spanish conductor, Teresa Riveiro Bohm, making her Sydney Opera House debut.
After being tested with some sound balance issues early in the opera, Bohm quickly won over the Sydney audience with her expansive conducting style.
Several of the singers also had trouble having their un-amplified spoken dialogue heard in the vast theatre.
One of the fascinations of The Magic Flute is how it lends itself to endless interpretations. Kate Gaul has chosen to concentrate hers on life’s contrasts; good and evil, light and dark, life and death, male and female.
But it was hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that many decisions involved in its realisation appear to have been affected by budgetary considerations and, as an offering by the country’s flagship opera company, it represents a disturbing drop in production standards.
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