Wednesday, February 7, 2024

THE MAGIC FLUTE - Opera Australia

Michael Smallwood (Tamino) - with the Opera Australia chorus in "The Magic Flute".

Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder – English translation by Kate Gaul and Michael Gow

Conducted by Teresa Riveiro Bohm – Directed by Kate Gaul

Set design by Michael Yeargan – Set design consultant Richard Roberts

Costume design by Anna Cordingley – Movement direction by Andy Dexterity

Lighting Design by Verity Hampson

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House until March 16th 2024.

Opening night performance on February 1st reviewed by BILL STEPHENS

Ben Mingay (Papagano) - Stacey Alleaume (Pamina) in "The Magic Flute)

2024 is proving an interesting year for Opera Australia. After 13 years positioning itself on the world stage as Australia’s flagship opera company; sharing productions with the likes of  La Scala, Metropolitan Opera and The Royal Opera House; pioneering the use of LED screens for its productions; and showcasing Sydney Harbour worldwide with its innovative outdoor productions; the company decided to take advantage of the change of artistic directors, brought about by the resignation of Lyndon Terracini, to embark on a new strategy aimed at making it more reflective of a 21st century Australia and   celebrate our own stories and talent.

While waiting for its new artistic director to take up her position, the company commissioned guest creative director, Lindy Hume, to curate the summer season for 2024.  Hume programmed five productions. All are new to the Sydney Opera House, but only one, The Magic Flute, is an entirely new production by Opera Australia, the others being collaborations with other companies. Together they provide a fascinating insight as to how this new strategy might be realised.

Although she has been assistant and revival director on several OA productions and directed numerous operas for other companies, 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 and 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.

Ben Mingay (Papagano) - Michael Smallwood (Pamino) in "The Magic Flute"

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, Mingay’s 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.

Zev Mann (Sirit) - Stacey Alleume (Pamina) - Abbey Hammond (Spirit) - James Valanidas (Spirit)
in "The Magic Flute"

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 as a cheeky, show-girl, Papagena and Michael Smallwood’s sweetly sung Tamino.

Indyana Schneider (2nd Lady) - Jane Ede (1st Lady) - Ben Mingay (Papagano)
 - Ruth Strutt (3rd Lady) in "The Magic Flute)

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.

David Parkin (Sarastro) - Guiseppina Grech (Queen of the Night) with the Opera Australia Chorus in "The Magic Flute)

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 unamplified 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.

Though there is much to enjoy in this production, it is also hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that many decisions involved in its realisation appear to have been affected by budgetary considerations, so that as an offering by the country’s flagship opera company, it represents a disturbing drop in production standards.  


                                                          Images by Keith Saunders

An edited version of this review  published in the digital edition of  Canberra City News on 6/2/24