The Magic Flute at the Sydney Opera House

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I’m just back from my second night at the Sydney Opera House, at which I saw Opera Australia’s production  of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. What has been a very warm day turned into a very sultry evening, and it was nice to take my drink outside during the interval to admire the view:

I’ve lost track of how many different productions I have seen of this strange and wonderful masterpiece, and this was a distinctly Australian version. Technically it’s not an opera, but a singspiel: the recitative – the bit in between the arias – is spoken rather than sung. It’s really more like a musical comedy in that sense, and was originally intended to be performed in a kind of burlesque style.

The Magic Flute also has many points of contact with the pantomime tradition, including the character of the villainous Monostatos who, in this performance, was reminiscent of Rolf Harris. Papageno was a working class Australian, sporting a mullet, and carrying an Esky in place of the usual array of nets and birdcages. On her first entrance, the Queen of the Night put me in mind of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Sarastro, with long hair and flowing robes, looked like the leader of some sort of New Age cult; his acolytes were dressed in everyday casual clothes. The three boys – referred to as “spirits” in this production – were actually two boys and a girl, but “spirit” is a gender-neutral term so that’s fine.

I won’t even attempt to explain the plot, if you can call it that, because it’s completely daft. It’s daft, though, in a way that much of life is daft, and I think that’s the secret of its enduring popularity. Mozart’s music carries you along and constantly seems to be telling you not to take it all too seriously. It seems to me that it must be hard to get the balance right between the comedy (which frequently border on the slapstick) and the serious. The worst thing to do is to make it too pompous. This production doesn’t fall into that trap, but in playing it virtually entirely for laughs I think it misses the depths that make a truly successful version. The ending – in which the rays of the Sun are supposed to dispel the darkness – involved a big reveal to a picnic with the chorus in beach wear and sunglasses. There’s a lot to be said for sunshine, and I found the idea mildly amusing, but there should be more to the end of this Opera than that. On the other hand, Pamina’s aria in Act II, when she is heartbroken because she thinks Tamino has abandoned her, was intensely moving, so it wasn’t all shallow.

The sets are simple but use clever devices to suggest the extraordinary scene changes required by the libretto, including pyramids, forests, waterfalls and flames. The ordeals by fire and water, for example, are depicted using reflective strip curtains, red for fire and blue for water. The dragon in Act I is conjured up by shadow puppets against a translucent curtain.

Papageno, played by an understudy whose name I didn’t catch, was the pick of the performers but overall the cast was not particularly strong vocally. David Parkin’s basso wasn’t nearly profundo enough for Sarastro and he struggled with the lowest notes. I’m not sure either why he also played The Speaker, who is a distinct role. Giuseppina Grech as the Queen of the Night looked fabulous and hit her high notes, but the elaborate coloratura passages were not well articulated.

This probably seems very negative than I intended. There is much to enjoy in this production. It’s very entertaining, and at times riotously funny. It was just a bit too superficial for my taste.

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