Sydney Opera House: “The Magic Flute”

Sydney, “Joan Sutherland Theatre”, Sydney Opera House.
Opera in two acts, libretto  by Emanuel Schikaneder.
Sung in English with surtitles(in English). Translated by JD McClatchy. Performed by arrangement with The Metropolitan Opera, publisher and sole copyright holder
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart     
Queen of the Night HANNAH DAHLENBURG
First Lady
Third Lady ANNA YUN
Monostatos KANEN BREEN
Second Spirit OLIVER RICE
First Priest MALCOLM EDE
First Armoured Man DEAN BASSETT
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Opera Australia Chorus
Opera Australia Children’s Chorus
Conductor Rory McDonald
Chorus Master   Anthony Hunt  
Director   Matthew Barclay based on the original production by Julie Taymor
Set Designer George Tsypin
Costume Designer Julie Taymor
Puppetry Designers Julie Taymor, Michael Curry
Lighting Designer Gary Marder based on the original design by Donald Holder
Choreographer Matthew Barclay based on the original choreography by Mark Dendy 
Sydney. 7th January, 2016.         
Opera Australia mounted this production of The Magic Flute for the first time in 2012, adapting it from the original production that Julie Taymor (of Broadway’s Lion King fame) created and directed for the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 2005. It is an abridged version of Mozart’s score, with an up-beat new English translation by JD McClatchy. It is unmistakably crafted to introduce children into the magical world of opera. This in-house built production is a cornucopia of bright colours, striking masks, beguiling costumes, and spectacular soaring birds and giant billowing puppets manoeuvred sinuously by black clad figures manipulating giant rods.   Slashing the opera by a third to around film length, 2hours 10, doesn’t come without casualties, no matter how calculated. Even the bright and well-known ouverture, atmospheric and predictive, gets the chop after the three initial chords. We are thrown at play-station speed into the first scene: the slaying of the dragon, and the production charges forward, highlighting the playful, magical and fairy-tale qualities of the opera. It prefers to underline the narrative and visual connections familiar to young listeners(or should I say viewers), at the expense of the work’s deeper and more profound questions. By cutting the more complex issues the production manages to avoid the opera’s recognized inconsistencies as well. The fact that Papageno is given the star’s place at the curtain calls is a manifesto of intention.
The production is visually stunning and engaging with a constant stream of delightful and inventive effects that flow on seamlessly without a hitch or hesitation. It embraces pantomine and music-hall, Noh theatre and Indonesian puppetry. Singers enter the audience space on a passarella around the pit. The Queen of the Night’s very taxing costume is an effigy of the Sienese sbandieratori, lending drama and dynamism to her already fiendish coloratura arias. Dancing flamingos (striking choreography by Matthew Barclay), headresses, stilts… the list is endless and diversified. The rotating main set resembles a perspex, front-loading washing machine. Not particularly beautiful, but multi-functional, it serves as a tunnel, a lift, a hampster wheel, to name just a few. It is also a constant reminder that the opera theatre stage is tiny. Opera Australia continues to house productions that intelligently disguise the spatial shortcomings, but there is always a cramped feeling, even in this modestly populated 18th century opera.
Although targeted at a young, inexperienced audience the singing and playing was of high standard. There was complete musical cohesion between stage and pit. Rory McDonald‘s conducting, and subsequently the orchestra’s playing, was refined, elegant and precise.
The orchestral sound in general, while clear and clean, seemed removed. Was it because of it’s even more remote placing, (behind the passarella), than usual? The balance however was excellent and the orchestra, even in the most dramatic moments was always several notches below the singers. The subtle lighting effects of Gary Marder enhanced the enchanting scenes as well as underlining the contrasting characters of the Queen, with cold blue hues, and Sarastro with warm glowing golds. Julie Taymor and Michael Curry’s mythical dragon, the beautiful birds gently circling stage and stalls, the giant billowing polar bear puppets,, the sculptured, geometric costumes in an undefinable antique style for the chorus, all added to the visual feast.  John Longmuir was both vocally and dramatically secure as an intense Tamino. His line was smooth,taut, easy and expressive, his articulation clear and comprehensible. Although an appealing Papageno Samuel Dundas came over as vocally unfocussed. Much of the dialogue was so throw- away it didn’t project and his singing seemed muffled. Both Taryn Fiebig, as Pamina, and Hannah Dahlenburg, as the Queen, were practically inaudible in their speaking roles. Again, it just didn’t project. Both proved more robust in their singing. Fiebig’s round and limpid sound lent itself to her graceful and firm Pamina. Hannah Dahlenburg’s strength was her precise, even and strong coloratura. Her lower range, as with her speaking voice, didn’t have power consistent with the upper register or the required dramatic intensity of the role. Daniel Sumegi was a majestic and authoratitive Sarastro. His burnished bass unravelled effortlessly to the bottomless lower register. Kanen Breen depicted the quintessential villain Monostatas, with mastery. Some of his more lecherous actions were perhaps too explicit for the young target audience and the fairy-tale atmosphere. Katherine Wiles gave a convincing and adroit portrayal in both her incarnations, old hag/young bird! The three spirits, Kiri Jenssen,Oliver Rice and Paolo Lieghio were particularly notable for the purity of their tone, perfect ensemble singing and commanding theatrical presence. The three ladies, Jane Ede, Sian Pendry and Anna Yun, gave an accomplished and polished performance. The cast was completed by the solid and calibrated performances of Adrian Tamburini as The Speaker, and Dean Bassett and Clifford Plumpton as the First and Second Armoured Man, respectively.