“Mini” Magic Flute & Bastien and Bastienne
Boutique Opera and The NZ Opera Society
Directed by Ian Graham (The Magic Flute) and Kate Harcourt (Bastien and Bastienne)
Musical Director: Lesley Graham Piano: Fiona McCabe
St Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Sunday 21st June, 2009
This was my introduction to the work of “Boutique Opera”, a company whose activities are based around the studio of Wellington singing teacher, Lesley Graham, and which gives aspiring singers the chance of performing experience on stage in operas and musicals. The productions today, in collaboration with the New Zealand Opera Society, featured an adaptation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for young singers, and a complete performance of the same composer’s youthful singspiel “Bastien and Bastienne”. In their entirely different ways, both performances were immense fun to watch, it being a fascinating, instructive and rewarding notion to set a novice production alongside an accomplished “adult” one, albeit of different works – the experience for the young singers of being able to watch their more seasoned counterparts close at hand on stage would have been invaluable.
Very properly, the simplified “Magic Flute” came first, complete with narrator (Charles Wilson) and piano accompaniment (Fiona McCabe), both contributions extremely capable and stylish throughout, making the most of their storytelling opportunities. The enthuisiastic acting by the young Monster, Wiremu Andrews, as he attempted to attack the Prince Tamino stole the show during the first scene, but decorum was restored by the entry of the Three Ladies, Rima Shenoy, Evgenia Chamritski and Chloe Garrett, whose tremulous but effective intervention saved the Prince’s life. Papageno, the bird-catcher, was nicely acted by Henry Hillind with plenty of personality, if rather small of voice. James Adams as Tamino, the Prince, made a good fist of his “portrait aria”, with some expressive acting and singing. A treasurable moment was when the Queen of the Night failed to appear on cue the first time round (unfortunately, there was no Shakespearean dialogue of the “methinks I was mistook” variety to help the cast through the hiatus, so they simply started the music again, and the invocation was successful the second time through!). The queen, sung by Georgia Gray, survived her “what time is the next thunderclap?” glitch in style, giving us some true-voiced singing and a series of nicely-placed high notes, though the aria was truncated with nearly all of the coloratura cut. Her second aria, later in the opera, was even more impressively handled, with some of the high work left in to great effect on notes such as the third “Hear!”.I was disappointed that only the Three Ladies sang the music describing the flute and the bells which were given to Tamino and Papageno on their “quest”, and not the men in reply, because it is some of the loveliest music in “the Flute”. The Ladies’ tones were nicely blended and they handled the harmonic descents most sensitively.
I liked Lara Denby’s Pamina, true-voiced, sweet and nicely tremulous, her vulnerability the perfect foil for the menacing Monostatos of Sam McBain; and later, her dramatic instinct finding a believable tragic note for “Ah, my heart is broken” in the face of her apparent rejection by Tamino. The Three Boys (Girls, actually – Rosemary Thomson, Chloe Garrett and Lauren Yeo) sounded lovely, with attractively youthful tones and good harmony. As Sarastro Michael Miller seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, but he kept his singing line and extracted what resonance he could from the music in both of his arias, better of the two being “O Isis and Osiris”. At various points in the drama Fiona McCabe’s piano-playing was a joy to register, no more so than during the teasing by an old crone (Papagena in disguise) of the hapless Papageno, the acting by both in this scene both entertaining and touching even if the singing was rather small-scale. In all, I thought this production managed to capture a lot of the full opera’s feeling and flavour, quite obviously a valuable experience in different ways for the youthful participants.
After an interval of almost Wagnerian proportions (presumably to allow the youngsters to change, clear the decks and join the audience for the second half) we were treated to an enchanting performance of Mozart’s youthful “Bastien and Bastienne” (a work I didn’t know, to my shame). The performers included James Adams (the Tamino in the first half’s “Flute”) as Bastien, with Barbara Graham an enticing and cocquettish Bastienne and Roger Wilson as the wily and sonorous-voiced Rawleigh’s man (an inspired piece of Kiwiana up-dating!), with Fiona McCabe, as throughout the first half, providing splendid piano support (a beautifully-played introduction, with the principal theme exactly that of the opening of the “Eroica” Symphony!). I was held spellbound as much by the assurance of the teenaged Mozart’s writing as the beauty and deft theatricality of Barbara Graham’s singing, both in the lovely “I’ll wander through the meadows” and in her subsequent interaction with Roger Wilson’s Colas, where she conveyed a whole range of emotion in an entirely believable way.
As the Rawleigh’s Man with an eye for the main chance, Roger Wilson’s Colas hugely entertained us, taking in his stride his failure to win a kiss from the distraught Bastienne with a powerfully-delivered “Don’t forget – do what I’m advising”. And his magic potion aria “Hokus Pokus” (with great support from pianist Fiona McCabe) had show-stopping impact – finely sung and acted. Although James Adams as Bastien didn’t have quite the same vocal heft, he established his character surely with some nicely-focused singing; and he managed to created a telling amount of furious emotion at the thought of his sweetheart Bastienne’s supposed infidelity. The on-stage rapport of the lovers, later in the piece, also made for entertaining results, using such diverse objects as a shepherd’s crook, some sunflowers and a cell-phone – all such stand-off confrontations staged and delivered with a sure dramatic instinct.
Again and again I was left marvelling at the inventiveness of the young Mozart, with so many precursors of the goings-on of the later and greater operas served up for us here in beautifully-crafted form. The production brought out the work’s strengths in this regard, the final scene typifying the sense of fun and instinctive theatrical touch of director Kate Harcourt working with talented singer-actors – the concluding ensemble “Children, children” featuring Colas tying the lovers together with a rope, and then, in the final refrain “The Great Rawleigh’s Man” Colas skipping as the lovers turned the rope for him. All very joyous and tremendous entertainment – a great success!