The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder

Saturday 28 May 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington

NZ Opera production
Director: Sara Brodie,
Conductor: Wyn Davies
Orchestra Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

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Briefly:

NZ Opera’s production of this Magic Flute was fabulous! I have an array of tick boxes for The Magic Flute and THIS production ticked them all. Fun-filled, humorous, bawdy, magical, artistic, virtuous, noble, creative – an experiential wonderland. The setting, drama, direction, lighting, costumes were all wonderful. And the music was sublime.

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Tamino: Randall Bills
Pamina: Emma Fraser
Ladies: Amelia Berry, Catrin Johnsson, Wendy Doyle
Papageno: Samuel Dundas
Queen of Night: Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson
Sarastro: Wade Kernot
Priests: James Clayton, Derek Hill
Monostatos: Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua
Papagena: Madison Nonoa
Genii: Barbara Graham, Katherine McIndoe, Kayla Collingwood
Sung in English, translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Set & Props Designer: John Verryt
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Whiting
Lighting Designer: Paul Lim
Sound Designer: Jason Smith
Design Associate: Lisa Holmes

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The long story:

The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) is a firm favourite for many people. It operates at many levels and layers: a entertaining night out, a fairy tale, a indecorous story, a dramatic fantasy, a moral tale about good triumphing over evil, a Masonic parable, a symbolic allegory, a conscientious myth and of course, a quintessential musical experience.

I have an array of tick boxes for The Magic Flute and THIS production ticked them all.  Most were emphatic strokes of the pen – but some were just adequate.

The singing from the cast was terrific. Every voice was perfect for their roles.  The singing was absolutely in tune, the enunciation was superb, and the ensembles were exquisitely balanced.

Pamina and Tamino’s voices were crystal clear, coherent and lucid. Emma Fraser was impeccable and her voice and acting conveyed the tumultuous emotions of a young person in love. Randall Bills as Tamino was a light tenor with excellent diction and perfect tone and phrasing. Admittedly, he was an anxious Prince, not at ease in the dramatic action but maybe that was countering the lackadaisical attitude of Samuel Dundas’s Papageno, the braggart. Dundas’s tone was a covered, resonant, wonderfully round sound. It was like wearing a merino jumper on a cold night.

The three ladies (Amelia Berry, Catrin Johnsson, Wendy Doyle) were quite superb – lasciviousness incarnate, and I mean the seductive tone of their voices as well as their characters. Their silvery tones and close harmony work was outstanding. If I had to single out ONE thing about the production, my highlight was the three ladies – in every scene that were in. 

Magic Flute FDR60

The characters of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are on the extreme ends of the dramatic spectrum and Mozart contrived to give the extreme ends of the vocal range too – the Queen of the Night has to reach a high F above the treble and Sarastro the low F below the bass stave.

Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson as the Queen of the Night was incisive and dramatic in the Classical sense of the word. One of my tick boxes was the Act II confrontation where the Queen encourages Pamina to murder Sarastro.  She had a odd conformation of her vowel sounds in the coloratura  arpeggios. I guess it was her technique for coping with stratospheric range of the part but it was a little off-putting.  Wade Kernot as Sarastro struggled a bit with the depth of the very low notes and the orchestra didn’t help, covering his sound. In his middle registers his tone was warm and rich, befitting his role as the patriarch of the brotherhood.

The Genii (Barbara Graham, Katherine McIndoe, Kayla Collingwood) were innocent, delightful, and crystal clear. Monostatos, Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua, was a little bit underpowered but his envy, nastiness and salaciousness were apparent nonetheless.

As Papagena, Madison Nonoa was a delight. Her singing was joyful with earthy but ringing tones.  I would like to hear much of her voice again.

The two priests, James Clayton and Derek Hill, were excellent. One of the memories I will take from the production was outside the temple where Tamino and Pamina are about to face their trial. The priests have a passage when they were in octaves, with brass and double bass accompaniment. It was stunning writing and a powerful aural image.

Magic Flute FDR158

Mozart’s music is exacting and unforgiving. His compositions are so transparent that mistakes can’t escape notice. The notes look easy but they are not!  The Magic Flute Overture, one of the most famous overtures in all operas (another tick box), had a rocky start from the orchestra but the allegro sparkled and the sforzandos were perfect. One or two times the balance was off, or the players over rode the singers or their intonation wandered  but, overall, the orchestra performed admirably.

The drama and setting was stunning: symbolism in overdrive!!!

The opera exists in many layers, but a psychoanalyst would have a field day. The stage was marvellous – almost a Tim Burton creation. The stage was alarmingly raked – I guess that the men of the company have an appreciation of high heeled shoes now – and consequently the floor features were apparent for the audience even in the stalls: the equilateral triangle, the star-scape, the lava trail and the water trial.  The raked stage aided the trapdoors that were utilised effectively throughout the opera for exits and entrances.

Several large trees were placed about the stage, and their trunks were covered in runes and symbols – sometimes dark, sometimes backlit – foreboding or solemnity. An arch between the first downstage trees was a bridge that meant characters could utilise the stage space from many vertical levels.

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The tree trunks opened and revealed people or video screens. The technological wizardry was evident when the three Ladies revealed the image of Pamina – not the usual painting, but six hi-res, two metre video screens portraits.

When the Queen of the Night first approached [oddly, with walking sticks – maybe she went over on the raked stage?] her luminous costume sparkled with reflected star patterns around the theatre, matched by star patterns on the floor and a starry landscape from the revealed video screens.

Magic Flute FDR41

Given the Free Masonry aspect of the opera’s theme, I expected the runes and the circumscribed triangle but there were more symbols, motifs and emblems. The abstracted bed, the monster under (above) the mattress, the ‘long locks of lust’, the spiritual rose, the healing power of music, the divine messenger (or three Genii), the dawn (enlightenment) after the long, horrendous night (the trials). Some were counter-symbols – the three Ladies formed an inverted triangle contrary to the Temple’s golden triangle, and Monostatos was punished with a inverted cross posture.

Layers, layers, layers…..

When we first see the stage, Tamino is lying  on a bed apparently dreaming that a serpent is menacing him. The serpent appears under the bed – between his legs – and he faints, so the three audacious Ladies dispatch the phallic snake. (Freud – where are you?) The bed was the site of another two seductions – the molestations of Monostatos and the joyful union of Papageno and Papagena – the two ends of the sensual scale.

The opera is basically a fairy tale – but ‘Grimms’ not ‘Disney’. The sins of human kind were exposed and redemption is for the brave and virtuous. Some things are scary, as they should be, but who is the enemy? Example: usually, when Tamino uses the flute for the first time, some wild beasts appear behind him and they are calmed by his playing. For this production, only one beast was present – a terrible, appalling arachnid – cue the monstrosity from the Lord of the Rings (Shelob) or the Harry Potter films!  The important thing was the transformation that the flute produced. At the close of the first act, Tamino and Pamina are in a loving embrace but Monostatos catches them in a covetousness net. The spider descends and whips the net away. The monster is the saviour and its actions reveals that the ‘monster’ was the debauched human being. Who is the enemy? Quod erat demonstrandum. 

Magic Flute FDR107

I have to mention the ‘long locks of lust’! Apparently, the hairdo of the characters was a good indication of their concupiscence. The tresses of the three Ladies were alternatively piled up into tiaras and below their calves in luxuriant abandon, and Monostatos had a elongated ponytail that Barbie would envy. The Queen of the Night had lustrous (and luminous) hair too – but the three Genii, and the chorus ladies, had neat, tidy chignons. The main priests were basically bald, replacing their hair with symbolic tattoos.

The puppets were impressive too, and seemed to capture the innocence or child-like fantasy of the opera. The tumbling birds, the frightening spider, the majestic armed men were marvellous, but the three Genii puppets were a triumph of the director and the design team – and it mostly paid off. The Genii were three articulated puppets, all chalky white, while their ‘chauffeurs’ – and the singers – were clad in black. It was reminiscent of the Japanese Noh theatre, where the puppet-operators an invisible to the audience. It almost worked – but I couldn’t not [double negative, but appropriate] focus on the effortless fluency of their mouths as they sang their hearts out. I guess they could have covered their heads too, balaclava style, but the sound would be muffled. And it is a opera after all!

Magic Flute FDR147

Some of the words were a little outdated or even objectionable – testosterone fuelled chauvinism or blatant racism. Unfortunately, the main protagonists were the brotherhood of the priests and Sarastro. In the English translation he was called ‘divinely judicious’ but some of his pronouncements were greeted by sniggers from the audience – “Did he really say that?” The libretto was created 225 years ago and things have changed but the dialogue should be more mutable. Die Fledermaus, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or  musical theatre dialogues often employ contemporary asides for the contemporary society. Surely we could have dialogue that mollify the objectionable parts of the libretto? For example, Papageno was basically a antipodean farmer with a ‘She’ll be right’ attitude. He calls Tamino ‘the Prince’ – maybe a reference to the former rock-musician – and he more concerned about his food, wine and women. He could question the beliefs of the priests on our behalf?

Magic Flute FDR199

The costuming was subtly done with the roles of the characters grouped together – sunlight colours for the temple followers, silver for the Queen’s followers, green and brown for the Papagenii. But Tamino and Pamina were so drab. I get the ‘purity’ of Tamino’s white costume but Peter Alexander pyjamas? And Pamina – why a pink shift?Prince Tamino should be richly dressed as the start and why was Pamina blood-red overcoat stripped away from her so quickly?  Surely she should have  pure white too when she undertakes the trials – a confirmation suit and dress. When they completed these decisive tests and were crowned by floral tributes, surely a richly embroidered (and richly deserved) cloak could be appropriate?

That is nickpicking!

Again, the production was marvellous, the music was sublime, the playing and singing was first-rate, the direction and the setting was amazing.

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