Above: Kanen Breen’s larger -than-lascivious Monastatos before one of the streamered or fabric backdrops in this production. Featured image: Michael Smallwood as Tamino and Opera Australia Chorus displaying some of this version’s unique, successful and local creative touches. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.
Traditionally, especially in Australian culture, opera has somewhat suffered from a reputation for being inaccessible or too high-brow for the public to all be comfortable with or entertained by. This art form, eventually brought from the European/British continent to our shores following colonisation has sometimes been dismissed as ‘too high falutin’, or a night out fully of hard to handle scenes and sound ‘by crikey’.
Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute in our vernacular, Mozart’s final opera contains his masterful dramatic plus musical wizardry, displaying that this composer could set any libretto to be staged anywhere with his creative wonders intact. Its premiere was far from the major German opera houses, was sung in the vernacular, contained many sections of spoken word and had quite fantasical, eye-catching but not lavish sets or staging elements.
And so, with local theatre luminaries such as director Kate Gaul, her co-translator Michael Gow and team of super-unique creatives including Anna Cordingly (costuming), Verity Hampson (lighting) and Andy Dexterity (movement director) we have an Opera Australia entertainment, reviving a German classic in English, referencing images, scenes and dispositions which are familiar to locals, and has turned a European classic into something as enticing as a new Australian play or film.
The result utilises disparate stylistic elements or theatrical vignettes from eras past for costuming, movement and sets. In an equally disparate libretto like The Magic Flute’s story and the manner in which this sublime opera first entered the world, the use of contradictory influences in which to package Mozart’s music is a total fit.
Above: Indyana Schneider as Second Lady, Jane Ede as First Lady and Ruth Strutt as Third Lady. Photo Credit: Keith Saunders.
The use of colourful theatrical elements and some candid, bonzer, uninhibited movement and lighting effects forms an interesting package which is accessible to first time opera-goers and an interesting update to traditional stagings. These highlight the range of semi-serious, comic and abstract themes in Mozart’s freemason friend Emanuel Schikaneder’s romp of a story.
The melting pot of narratives and spiritual or local references of Mozart’s day are gilded in subtle finery reflecting our bright antipodean effort at getting through, experimenting with self help, luck and superstition inhibiting survival. Staging ingredients, however traditional or not have always been trumped by the sublime music written so speedily by the seriously ill Mozart. In this production the storytelling and characters have a range of warm, cleverly rendered moments, relaxed clothing and delivery and a beautiful, constant reference to our blue sky in makeup costumes for bird plus human person alike.
Above: Nathan Lay as Priest 2, David Parkin as Sarastro and Gregory Brown as Priest 1. Photo Credit: Keith Saunders
Musical Theatre star Ben Mingay brings the bird catcher to blokey life, complete with esky, paint splattered overalls and a drink-friendly approach. Papagena (Jennifer Black) graces our Down Under opera stage as a burlesque beauty disguised as a jovial tuck shop lady type figure. Starting the romp off and with consistently excellent vocal blend are the goths in supernatural service, Jane Ede, Indyana Scheider and Ruth Strutt as the Three Ladies assisting the Queen of the Night.
Giuseppina Grech as Queen of The Night is a hum-dinger of a role realisation here. This character’s lithe evil form, not like a cliche grand-opera Brunhilde has been guided to use the stage well. Her villainous character here swathed in on outfit resembling The Great Gatsby as a wild woman carrying a fur not to be messed with. Her two well known arias are solid, will amaze someone processing opera for the first time, as well as offering the sounds up to opera fans on a delicious yet different platter especially with regard to tempo of that famous mother-daughter reading-the-riot-act aria.
Above: Stacey Alleaume as Pamina with Zev Mann, Abbey Hammond and James Valanidas as Spirits. Photo Credit: Keith Saunders.
Guest conductor Tersa Riviero Böhm let Mozart’s music speak neatly for itself. In the hands of soloists like Stacey Alleaume as Pamina and her chemistry with Michael Smallwood’s secure, warm voiced Tamino, the beauty of Mozart’s single and combined vocal lines never failed to be touching. The vocal music was reverberantly impressive over the solid and evenly delivered instrumental score and other ensemble voices.
The translation into English was welcome for the accessibility of the spoken sections. A fair whack of Aussie twang was colourful. The vocal superstars such as Alleaume and Giuseppina Grech as The Queen of the Night managed the switch of stock repertoire into English from learned arias in German.
The reversal of syntax and grammar from German into English, the morphed vowel and consonant sounds and difficult scanning of English language shapes made to fit into the original music case of melodies was handled well. Comprehension was key and easy though some opera fans may have had jarring non-German, non-familiar sounds for some favoured phrases. Other characters with less landmark, treasured music like the role of bad boy Monastatos, here in priceless caricature by Kanen Breen commanded the stage and the 2024 melodrama with amazing music well for our local new-tradition minds.
However, colour, characterisation, solid and attractive theatre and a uber-impressive trio of spirit children (resembling street boys and girl) guide us through the far out initiations in the temple owned by the magically vocie David Parkin’s Zen-Presley-style Sarastro. The Opera Australia Chorus did not disappoint, the male and mixed chorus moments penetrating the twists in visual and libretto effect to gift us quality and traditional opera group comments for all audience to be amazed at.
There is much more magic than scary ordeal in this version. There should be much pride in the result and many audience members lulled into the savage-beast-less landscape that is modern opera in this country by our flagship company. See it, then enjoy our beautiful harbour landscape with a drink afterwards.