The Magic Flute

Conservatorium Theatre (Opera Queensland)


Step right up! The circus is in town. But it’s not your conventional razzamataz big top entertainment. This time it’s a new take on Mozart’s immortal opera, The Magic Flute.

Director Christine Douglas has reasoned that long before being canonised, the The Magic Flute was a species of low-life entertainment for the Viennese masses, its producers thumbing their noses at the conventional Italianate operas staged in mainstream theatres. Spoken and sung in the local language rather than Italian, it was more akin to musical comedy than to high-brow opera.

Douglas has set out to recapture the carnival atmosphere of the original concept (see Milos Forman’s film version of Amadeus) by adopting a circus setting for The Magic Flute in this premiere production. Bird-catcher Papageno has become a clown (catching feathers instead of birds), villain Monostatos is a strongman, high priest Sarastro is ringmaster, the Queen of the Night a knife-thrower you get the idea.

It makes for colourful settings and costumes, splendidly designed by Simone Romaniuk, and many fascinating characters and characterisations. There are also some clever devices, such as a magic flute that floats in the air and plays itself.

Yet for me, it doesn’t quite gel as a theatrical performance. A circus theme should have provided a lot more fun and excitement perhaps some gymnastics, lion-taming and fire-eating, or even just some juggling or a bit more old-style slapstick maybe some well thrown custard pies. There are some laughs, but not enough, and the production as a whole lacks zest.

And despite or perhaps because of the big-top framing, much of the magic and mystery we associate with this opera has been diminished. It’s difficult to retain thematic coherence in the face of the text: one wonders, for example, why a bunch of circus toughs would be so focused on the search for meaning and the brotherhood of man. And while the liberal translation of Viennese entrepreneur Emanuel Schikaneder’s rather ordinary original script is certainly plain and easily comprehended, it’s too often simply banal, reminiscent of Broadway’s lesser moments: for example “If you need a helping hand/I will help you understand”.

Despite such reservations about the production, the excellent singing and the well-textured music from Richard Lewis’s Queensland Orchestra are very cheering. Ensemble sections are of a high standard, while the principals are balanced, vocally complementing each other very well. Some gems of moments include the first duet between Papageno and Pamina, as well as Tamino’s interactions with the trio of maidens who lead him up the garden path.

As Tamino, tenor Christopher Saunders has a consistently pleasing and sonorous voice, while Sarah Crane is a very fetching Pamina and is vocally excellent. Jason Barry-Smith, although a rather doleful Papageno, sings beautifully, and the role of his playmate Papagena is cheekily and charmingly captured by Sara Carvalho.

As Queen of the Night Judit Lorincz is dazzling, drawing appreciative applause. Although on opening night a little shaky at the start of her second big number perhaps not surprisingly given the difficulty of standing on bleachers in stilettos she quickly warmed to the challenge and finished with a fine flourish.

Russian Gennadi Dubinsky as Sarastro plumbs the depths with a resonant and powerful bass, ably complemented by Andrew Collis as the speaker, while Virgilio Marino sings and acts the padded “strongman” Monostasos with style.

As the Queen’s assistants, Gaynor Morgan, Jessica O’Donoghue and Sarah Sweeting are a chirpy and sexy trio, while chorus members are splendid collectively and in smaller character parts. Bernard Wheaton and Joshua Rowe sing their Germanic hymn with heavenly harmony.

Playing in Brisbane from 12th July to 2nd August, 2008, followed by a regional tour.

Tour dates August 2008
Thursday 7th: Gold Coast Arts Centre
Saturday 9th: Empire Theatre, Toowoomba
Tuesday 12th: The Brolga Theatre, Maryborough
Thursday 14th: Pilbeam Theatre, Rockhampton
Saturday 16th: Mackay Entertainment Centre
Tuesday 19th: Burdekin Theatre, Ayr
Thursday 21st: Townsville Civic Theatre
Saturday 23rd: Cairns Civic Theatre

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Fri 11th July 2008)