THE MAGIC FLUTE
THE MAGIC FLUTE, Opera Australia at the Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 1 February-16 March 2024. Photography by Keith Saunders
This new version of perennial favourite The Magic Flute is a triumph for director Kate Gaul and creative team Michael Yeargan (set), Anna Cordingley (costumes) and Verity Hampson (lighting). Like a mob of magpies, they appear to have picked key elements and references from OA’s past Flutes to create a fresh yet slyly referential production for the next decade.
In keeping with straitened times there’s Poor Theatre in the simplicity of the staging and its emphasis on the singers. A single set serves throughout – three lofty white walls, each with a centred classically pedimented doorway. At various points, the doorways are spotlit to signify exit or entrance, while softer or brighter washes of light signal other changes. The floor is lush turf, the whole echoing OA’s much-loved Carl Friedrich Oberle-Göran Järvefelt “Enlightenment” productions.
There are also echoes of Julie Taymor’s fabled family-friendly Flute whose deluxe animal puppets are hand-held cutout masks this time around. Her penchant for Indonesian shadow-play is seen in silhouetted birds back-lit by Maglites!
In practical terms, the Oberle grass also allows an entirely barefoot cast visibly grounded in Nature. This, along with Love and Wisdom, are the overarching concerns of Mozart’s magical instrument – whether in the pit or slung around Papageno’s neck.
The focus on the music is a delight. Under the baton of conductor Teresa Riveiro Böhm – a welcome debut with the company – the OA Orchestra and Chorus are vivaciously in sync with the principals. With all humans schooled to take an active part – rather than singing statues – by movement director Andy Dexterity, there is much to savour and amuse. Amusing too is the new English libretto by Gaul and Michael Gow. Which is modern and Australian without anachronism or ruin.
And this reminds that the thing about The Magic Flute is its magic. Suspension of disbelief brings it to life as spunky prince Tamino (Michael Smallwood) enlists bird-catcher, the dopy but gorgeous Papageno (Ben Mingay) in a quest to rescue the prince’s love Pamina (Stacey Alleaume) from her wicked mama, the Queen of the Night (Giuseppina Grech).
Another way of looking at it, however, is that there’s a custody battle going on between the Queen of Mean and Pamina’s father, noble Sarastro (David Parkin). Nevertheless, given the atmosphere of Masonic hints, there’s a lot to think about, especially given the Masons’ appetite for threes. There are the aforementioned three doors, and three lubriciously libidinous ladies (Jane Ede, Indyana Schneider, and Ruth Strutt). Then there’s Kanen Breen whose turn as the evil Monostatos is a typical master class in comic acting and vocal excellence. Finally: three Spirits.
These Spirits are given unusual prominence as the child sopranos also make the scene changes – scampering across the stage dragging curtains to and fro – altogether part of the action. On opening night these sprites were played by energetic actor Zev Mann, elegant Abbey Hammond and debonair James Valanidas – singing like angels throughout. (On alternating nights: Elijah Alkhair, Estelle Gilmovich and Thomas Prowse.)
After Assisting and Reviving since 2015, Kate Gaul’s debut in her own right wears its cleverness lightly, and honours Mozart’s music. It’s difficult to go past a marvellously ill-tempered Queen of the Night from Grech, not least because, finally, Sarastro seems to forgive her and even love her again. Mind you, when forgiveness comes as Parkin’s sonorous bass, burnished shaggy mane and robes, world peace can’t be far behind.
Alleaume shines as Pamina – the most subtle of the female roles, and her immersion in the misery of her plight is a vital contrast to the chucklesome Ede, Schnieder and Strutt. Another contrast is the knockabout comedian lurking within musical theatre star Mingay in his operatic debut. He’s a terrific Buttons-style foil for Smallwood’s princely pantomime hero. Last but definitely not least, the late arrival of Papageno’s girlfriend Papagena in the form of a hilarious Jennifer Black is a blue-plumed celebration of birds.
Two hours 45 (with interval) of luscious colour and movement is enhanced by Anna Cordingley’s tongue-in-cheek costumes. And they sum up this Flute – everyday and fantastical and a glorious spectacle. Recommended without reservation.