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REVIEW: The Magic Flute | Opera Theatre, Sydney

A scene from The Magic Flute | Opera Theatre

It might sound like the name of a porn flick backed by the likes of Larry Flynt, but Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a children’s opera. In Opera Australia’s recreation of The (New York) Metropolitan’s production of a few years ago, much of the spirit of pantomime is channelled, with the kind of near-didactic delivery of lines (for there’s much dialogue in this opera, since it takes the form of a singspiel, a term even a non-German can easily decipher) adults see fit for children.

While this does come across as a little patronising, not least to the substantially adult opening night audience, the parts are played so characterfully and colourfully (especially Papageno), all is immediately forgiven.

We begin with a translucent screen emblazoned with an outline of something resembling a pentagram. This points to the many Masonic or, at least, pseudo-Masonic references in the work, something which seems to have intrigued and preoccupied the original director, Julie Taymor. Even discounting the apparent specificity of the allusions, the aesthetic harks back to many things ancient, sacred, enigmatic and mysterious, making TMF a kind of late 18th-century Da Vinci Code.

From straight after the brief brass fanfare that opens the bidding, it’s archetypal Mozart, exhibiting all the elegance, ease and mellifluous fluidity for which we know and love him. The lovely, even meter and phrasing is always and ever a joy to behold and is made palpably so by that musical marvel in our midst, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Jonathan Darlington, to which it responds beautifully.

Tamino (Andrew Brunsdon) is about to be slain by a giant serpent, not unlike the ones so readily associated with indigenous folklore. Perhaps it’s symbolism like this that has led numerous (would be) academics to insinuate Jungian archetypal theory into the fabric of the work. Being the flawed hero he is, he faints, only to be revived by three women (Jane Parkin, Sian Pendry and Tania Ferris) in the service of the Queen Of The Night (Emma Pearson). As is quite often and understandably the case, Brunsdon wasn’t quite at full throttle in the first few minutes, yet quickly resolved and refined his delivery, such that one couldn’t hope for a more distinct, brilliant or pleasing timbre from this youthful heldentenor, dressed a little, or a lot, like a samurai.

Parkin, Pendry and Ferris sounded steadily ambrosial from the first: one could easily be forgiven for believing he or she had died and gone to heaven and, let’s face it, many of the OA’s opening night audience would have strong evidence for such a belief. Pearson’s hysterical rendition, completely relative to her character, struck my ear as wild and downright dangerous at the beginning; she may have even faltered a little. But any fears for her vocal safety were very soon allayed and she went on to wow with her extraordinary dynamics and intensely dramatic coloratura. A thrilling performance, endorsed heartily by the audience.

Mathew Barclay has done a sterling job of replicating Taymor’s vision, which reaches well beyond the usual limits of the Sydney Opera Theatre’s already capacious stage: mythical birds soar over the audience, almost diving low enough to switch off any recalcitrant iPhones and threatening the kind of blessings only birds bestow.

While George Tsypin’s set is like a giant, see-through Lego block, an homage to an hermetically-sealed, virtual future imperfect, at once utopian and dystopian, Taymor’s costumes (the uncompromisingly bold line and cleverness of which put almost any fashion designer, this side of Chanel, to shame) and puppets are the stuff of the kind of dreams that follow pizza overladen with a motza of mozza, fantastical and with elongated, trailing ‘fairytails’. It’s Fritz Lang meets The Never Ending Story.

Between them, they’ve created a brave new world for children of all ages to enter into for a couple of hours. Even with all these ooh-ah distractions, Mozart’s Old European score holds its graceful own, classless and all class; as does the wit of his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder.

Kanen Breen couldn’t have been kitted with a more conducive costume, but it’s his whole vocal and physical disposition, not to mention comic timing, that makes his turn, as the monstrous and evil Monostatos, such a treat. He’s loving it. And so are we.

David Parkin hits high notes while hitting exceptionally low ones (about as low as you can go), as the kingly high priest, Sarastro. He almost sounds like the tuba he played in still younger years. Nicole Car is, by any benchmark, a flawlessly lyrical soprano, and proves it, as Pamina, Tamino’s hard-won love interest. It’s Andrew Jones green-chicken Papageno though, that triumphs, as man o’ the match.

The adult chorus is in the very finest fettle, while the children’s one is reasonably shipshape; indisputably cute.

Artistic director Lyndon Terracini must be congratulated on the balance he brings to the OA’s programmes. The Magic Flute has been reinvented, principally by the Lion Kingly genius of Taymor, and transported into an enchanting, magical realm as potent as any in the minds of Mozart and Schikaneder way back when.

Some things, it seems, really don’t change. We can still suspend disbelief and let our imaginations run wild, given enough impetus, no matter how media-savvy and ap-happy we become.

The details: The Magic Flute plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 23 and opens in Melbourne at the State Theatre on April 21 —  tickets on the company website. A short Brisbane season begins at the Lyric Theatre on May 26 — tickets on the QPAC website.

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  • 1
    Mark
    Posted January 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Really, a porn movie, who would have made that connection with The Magic Flute. Crikey, what have we become, there is no lack of erudition in this country.

  • 2
    Lloyd Bradford Syke
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    guess I put the rude in erudition, mark. I can probably get you a discount on a sense of humour, if you want one.

  • 3
    George
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    How many free tickets did you get?
    The performance was crap.

  • 4
    Lloyd Bradford Syke
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    precisely two, george. however, as david williamson (among others) will tell you, money can’t buy my love.

  • 5
    joanjett
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    I loved it! I have just come back from tonight’s performance which I attended with my mum, my 17yo, my 11yo & 2 nieces (11 & 9). They weren’t particularly interested in coming, dragging their feet I’d say. But thanks to the wonderful music of Mozart combined with this incredible production they are opera converts. And at the end of the day, isn’t what this is about? Attracting new audiences and reinventing it so that it remains vital and an important part of the arts. The costumes, make-up, sets and puppetry were absolutely fantastic. I thought the vocal performances were terrific but I’m far from an expert so can’t really comment. Apart from a draconian attendant who hushed the kids whenever they tried to unwrap their toblerone, the experience was wonderful.

  • 6
    Lloyd Bradford Syke
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    I reckon you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head, Joanie. If only Mark & George were as unpretentious.

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