Sunday, September 7, 2014


Opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
English translation by Michael Gow
Directed by Michael Gow
Opera Australia
Canberra Theatre, September 4 – 6, 2014

Review by Len Power September 4, 2014

‘He looks like a film star!’  This is not a line you expect to hear in a Mozart opera written in the late 18th Century.  Michael Gow has transported Mozart’s opera to 1930s Egypt, Hollywood-style, and set it in an ancient tomb with sinister shadows on the walls, secret doorways and a hero who looks like you-know-who from a Steven Spielberg movie.  It all works very well and is a delight from start to finish.

This production is sung in English and you can actually hear and understand the words as they’re singing them.  Michael Gow’s translation is witty and clarifies a lot of the original story with careful cuts to the text.  It’s especially notable that the modern words in the arias don’t stray much in translation from the original German text.  A major change in this version concerns the Queen Of The Night who isn’t destroyed at the end of the opera.  In addition, Monostatos, usually played as a black man who must therefore be evil, is played as a foreigner who is subservient to people who think they are better than him.  These changes are a welcome improvement.  The punishment of the Queen Of The Night has always seemed a bit extreme, so this change makes the ending of the opera more human and satisfying.

The terrific set design by Robert Kemp is very much in keeping with a 1930s Hollywood movie designer’s idea of an ancient Egyptian tomb.  The lighting gantries clearly visible above the set add to the Hollywood feel of the production.  It might be a touring set but it looks quite substantial with secret doorways opening here and there.  Matt Scott’s lighting design gives it all a spooky Universal Studios horror movie atmosphere.

The music, using Andrew Greene’s excellent orchestral arrangement was quite charming.  The nine piece chamber ensemble, conducted by Paul Fitzsimon brought out the colour and vibrancy of Mozart’s score.  Sound balance between the orchestra and the un-miked singers was perfect.

Hannah Dahlenburg, as the Queen of the Night, had the most spectacular arias to sing and handled them superbly.  Tamino was sung by the handsome Jonathan Abernethy and his fine singing displayed a striking tenor voice.  Christopher Hillier as Papageno sang very well and demonstrated strong comic ability also.  Emma Castelli as Pamina, Steven Gallop as Sarastro, Benjamin Rasheed as Monostatos and Anna Dowsley as Papagena also sang very well and gave good in-depth characterisations.  The Three Ladies, played by Anna Yun, Regina Daniel and Stacey Alleaume, were great fun bickering over Tamino and their trios were beautifully sung.  The members of the Woden Valley Youth Choir, appearing in the Canberra performances only, were in fine voice and moved so confidently that they looked like they had been part of the production from its inception.

At the beginning of the opera, Tamino has to do battle with a monster, usually portrayed as a dragon or a serpent.  In this production, Tamino takes on The Mummy, dressed as expected in rotting bandages.  This costume and all of the others designed by Robert Kemp were striking and nicely in period.

Director, Michael Gow, has produced a very entertaining show with fine performances.  His decision to set it in a 1930s Hollywood-style setting was inspired and makes the opera much more accessible.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 7 September from 5pm.

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