The Magic Flute in brilliant production, with mainly New Zealand cast of polish and energy

The Magic Flute (Mozart)
New Zealand Opera

Conductor: Wyn Davies
Director: Sara Brodie; Assistant director: Jacqueline Coats
Set and props designer: John Verryt; costume designer: Elizabeth Whiting; Lighting designer: Paul Lim; Sound designer: Jason Smith

Cast: Tamino: Randall Bills; Pamina: Emma Fraser; Papageno: Samuel Dundas;
Queen of the Night: Ruth Jenkins-Robertson; The Speaker/Armed Man/Priest: James Clayton;
Three Ladies: Amelia Berry, Catrin Johnsson, Kristin Darragh
Monostatos: Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua; Papagena: Madison Nonoa; Priest/Armed Man: Derek Hill; Three Boys (Genii): Barbara Graham, Katherine McIndoe, Kayla Collingwood

St James Theatre

Saturday 28 May, 7:30 pm

This production that has engaged a number of young and highly promising New Zealand singers (only three from overseas), was probably among the most spectacular (and expensive I imagine) ever seen in New Zealand. Happily, it also succeeded in capturing the essential qualities of this hybrid work. It combines singspiel, comic opera, mime, vaudeville, employing a text that mixes Masonic ritual and ancient Egyptian religion, a touch of Christianity with the Enlightenment in an intellectual atmosphere bred of French revolutionary politics.

There was a pretty full house and the audience was highly responsive to the entire performance.

After conductor Wyn Davies conducted Orchestra Wellington through a spacious, strong and careful overture the curtain, which has slowly turned from a deep star-spangled blue to speckled gold, rises to reveal a bed on which the shape of a body appears, and from under it a large serpent emerges. We guess it’s Prince Tamino, and he half-wakes to find the serpent and cries for help.

Three women (‘Damen’ or Ladies) in the most brilliant, sparkling costumes, slits to the hip, arrive in the nick of time, kill the serpent with their javelins and then begin to perform ‘sexually offensive’ acts on the apparently still-sleeping Tamino. He fails to notice.

The Three Ladies were sung by three New Zealand singers, soprano Amelia Berry from Wellington, now in New York; mezzo Katrin Johnsson, born Sweden, now in Auckland; and mezzo Kristin Darragh, Aucklander, resident in Germany; they had powerful presence, their voices were well contrasted, vocally strong and well projected; their costumes were sparkling, nocturnal, and I haven’t seen three more impressive or alluring Ladies in the many productions I’ve seen. (Their name has been victim of PC-ness: ‘Lady’ is now verboten. In a review for The Evening Post, probably of the 1999 production, a subeditor changed my words to ‘The Three Women’).

Anyway, it was a highly amusing start.

Australian Samuel Dundas’s arrival brought another vivid character in the shape of Papageno; he’s a singer absolutely born for the role, making good use of genuine Ozzie swagger in demeanour, rough wit and vocal expression, both in his dialogue and his commanding self-introduction, ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’. His role is by nature the most colourful of the opera; all eyes were drawn to him. (It’s not surprising that he’s sung Dr Malatesta in Don Pasquale and Belcore in L’elisir d’amore, no doubt highly praised).

And then the exchange with Tamino, American tenor, Randall Bills, about the dead serpent which Papageno claims to have killed with bare hands, and is punished by the Ladies who padlock his mouth, for lying. It’s a very animated scene in which the staging calls attention to itself, with two big, leafless trees on either side, their branches interwoven to form a bridge across the stage, useful in several later scenes, for example, for the Three Boys to ensure human decency and to act as saviours.

Here, after the Ladies have shown him an image (four huge You-Tube style photos) of the Princess Pamina, Tamino sings his ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernt schön’. Though in English, which I thought a pity, as almost all the memorable arias and ensembles are thoroughly familiar in German and sounded odd in English, and we still needed the useful surtitles at least for some of the singers. Though I must say that the words were much more understandable than usually in opera, perhaps in part helped by the hard surfaces of the sets. Furthermore, the translation, no matter how apt, often fitted ill with the rhythms and shapes of the music.

But though a lovely aria, sensitively performed, ‘Dies Bildnis…’ was not quite strong enough to draw attention away from Papageno or the Three Ladies. (Bills has sung at Leipzig Opera, with New York City Opera, the Rossini Festival at Pesaro and several other smaller German houses).

The Queen v. Sarastro
British coloratura from the North of England, Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson then arrives, as The Queen of the Night, glitteringly garbed, and recognizes in Tamino a candidate for a rescue operation to recover her daughter Pamina from the clutches of her arch-enemy Sarastro.

Her first aria ‘O zittre nicht’ is one of the most famous of the coloratura genre, second only to her Act II ‘Der Hölle Rache’. Though her top F disintegrated and I felt that last degree of ruthless vengeance was not very marked, her voice had all the agility demanded and her whole presentation was splendid.

Emma Fraser, originally from Dunedin, was perfectly cast as Pamina; Pamina is not a particularly strong character, but with Fraser’s beautiful voice it spoke of innocence and kindness; compared to most of the other leading characters, she is, like Tamino, dressed virginally, demurely and she acts accordingly.

The Three Boys, or Genii, arrive, though not ‘in person’. They are cast in various ways; sometimes boys with suitably trained voices are available, but in a country where there’s almost no tradition of children’s, more especially boys’, choirs, they are probably hard to find. Here three sopranos manage cute puppets who do the job, often on the bridge between the trees, fitting their role as ‘heavenly creatures’. At first, apparently as servants of the Queen to guide Tamino and Papageno in their mission to ‘rescue’ Pamina; but later they are clearly not in the Queen’s camp, but rather that of the enlightened Sarastro, capable of humane intervention, to perform as a saviour later, as ‘heavenly creatures’.

Several of Sarastro’s disciples/vassals are conflated into just two. The Speaker appears first, taken with authority and clarity by James Clayton, convincingly defending his chief, Sarastro, to Tamino against the Queen’s vilification; but the roles of the others, two ‘Armed Men’, and two or three Priests, and are compressed or deleted and taken by the fine young baritone, Derek Hill, listed as ‘Priest/Armed Man’. No real harm was done, though he adopted a crabbed accent and I wondered at the meaning of his being a cripple, just as I’d been curious about the reason the Queen was hobbling about on sticks – I’d never detected anything in her character to suggest physical disability, but I bow to the superior intuitions of the director.

Sarastro himself was sung by Wade Kernot, who has indeed an elegant, resonant voice, but apart from its thinning rather sadly at the bottom early in his first aria (it recovered somewhat later), he lacks just a little of the gravitas (sorry about that overused word) essential to the role.

Then there’s the predatory Moor, Monostatos, whose role has always rather mystified me; some of his part is cut, especially his cavorting with his three slaves, and that was not missed. Regardless of the meaning of his part in the story, he was splendidly portrayed by Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua.

Sarastro’s counter-offensive allied with the lovers
Act II begins with a suspiciously Christian scene of women of Sarastro’s court washing Pamina’s feet (forget that his court is monastic – men only, and not specifically Christian). In this production the chorus is enlarged to include women, no doubt to comply with pressure from the Human Rights Commission on sexual equality. That brings the situation into conflict with the several verbal slights against women (chuckles from the audience), their moral and intellectual strength, but it undermines the authenticity of Mozart and Schikaneder’s drama which should always remain true to its fundamental conception. We just have to acknowledge that attitudes towards women in the 18th century were different. If this directorial decision was misguided, at least the language was left unmutilated.

The chorus is nevertheless one of the chief glories of the production, as was the orchestra’s performance. Again, the clarity and liveliness of music director Wyn Davies’s handling of all his musical forces was admirable. I have earlier touched on aspects of the look of the stage and the singers and their positioning and movement on stage, invariably handled with unerring sense of what worked for the audience and, I guess, an awareness of the opera’s literary and philosophical background which is much more interesting than might first appear.

The last character to appear is Papagena, whose role with her male namesake is always a delight, and this was no exception. Madison Nonoa was garbed in keeping, amusingly and her singing, just right, fitting deliciously with Papageno’s.

All costumes were appropriate and often startlingly lavish, generally in keeping with one’s own imaginings, based on many past productions. In particular, there was much attention to lighting and sound effects, other than what came from the pit. The lighting was particularly effective: surprising, sharply illuminating in both literal and symbolic senses. And there were other props such as a huge hairy spider that contributed to the entertainment though not especially enhancing the operatic experience. The hollow tree trunks served for magical appearances and disappearances and allowed for Papageno’s tree-climbing prowess; and the trap-door in the floor provided for surprising entrances and exits, even for the conductor to emerge to receive the huge, final applause.

In all, this was a simply splendid production, one of the best the company has ever done, and even among the best anywhere in New Zealand. Undoubtedly hugely to the credit of director Sara Brodie and assistant Jacqueline Coats, it is a must-see, and a vindication of the genius of Mozart as well as of his literary collaborator, Schikaneder. For it was a work that certainly changed the nature of German theatre in its own language, and to which many attribute the eventual revolutionary achievements of Wagner.


Postscript: the Flute’s history in New Zealand
I was prompted to look back at the record of earlier productions in New Zealand.

The Magic Flute was a late-comer to the New Zealand stage. While there was a rich procession of almost all the standard opera repertoire, even some Wagner, through New Zealand from touring companies from the 1860s and till the mid 20th century – Adrienne Simpson’s exhaustive history lists about 130 different operas and operettas brought to New Zealand till 1950, Mozart was rather neglected. Only The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni were seen before the birth of the New Zealand Opera Company in 1954, which, after the establishment of the then National Orchestra in 1947, came at the real beginning of our own, indigenous performing arts history, along with the creation of the New Zealand Players and the New Zealand Ballet about the same time.

It was that great and adventurous company which gave the New Zealand premiere of The Magic Flute in April 1963 in the same theatre that opens this new production in Wellington. That was toured, with more or less orchestral accompaniment, to fifteen towns through New Zealand.

After the Wellington-based New Zealand Company was disgracefully wound up in 1971, smaller companies arose throughout the country in what looked by the 1980s like a permanent awakening of opera as a popular musical genre, not nationally based, but with strong roots in local communities.

Canterbury Opera was the first among the rising regional companies to stage The Flute, in 1986 and they staged another production in 1996.

In March of the Mozart bicentennial year of 1991 (of both the opera and of Mozart’s death), Wellington City Opera followed with a controversial production designed by the gifted Kristian Fredrickson.

Auckland Opera staged it in 1993 and Wellington did it again in 1999, its last year before the company’s merger with Auckland to create New Zealand Opera. Curiously, by then Auckland had renamed its company ‘New Zealand Opera’ and Wellington retaliated by changing its name to the ‘National Opera of Wellington’.

From then The Flute had productions in other parts of the country: Opera Waikato produced it in 1999 and Hawke’s Bay Opera in Hastings in 2003.

Among the many city companies, only Dunedin’s company, which was founded in the mid 1950s and is the only survivor among the original companies, seems never to have produced The Flute.

There have been university productions such as Otago’s in 1991 and Victoria’s in 1996; and the lively and prolific Opera Factory in Auckland produced it in 2001, performed largely by young singers.

Ten years ago, in 2006, New Zealand Opera produced The Magic Flute for both Wellington and Auckland.

6 thoughts on “The Magic Flute in brilliant production, with mainly New Zealand cast of polish and energy

  1. Simon Cauchi says:

    “For it was a work that certainly changed the nature of German theatre in its own language, and which many attribute to the eventual revolutionary achievements of Wagner.”

    I think you meant to write:

    … to which many attribute …

    At least that seems to make better sense to me.

    • Lindis Taylor says:

      Simon. A couple of hours after I posted it, I made a couple of changes/corrections. If you look again you’ll see that in the process of doing that I corrected the use of the verb.
      As for your comment about the libretto, that’s a matter of taste. I was well aware of its virtues but several times I felt words and music weren’t specially happy together. To get it to work in another language where stresses and rhythms are always different is one of the reason that I don’t like translations.

  2. Simon Cauchi says:

    I think also the English translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey (who is very experienced at this sort of work and who made it originally for a Scottish production) deserves praise. Of course it’s impossible to fit English words smoothly to music shaped to fit a German libretto, but the words were ingenious and witty and a good part of our enjoyment.

  3. Roger Wilson says:

    Don’t forget Gisborne (1978 & 2005) and Peter Coates’ TVNZ production (I think 1983 but I may be wrong – recording of music and the filming were a couple of years apart).

    • Lindis says:

      Thanks Roger. Was it the last of Peter’s, from today’s viewpoint, amazing undertakings? I didn’t know of the 1978 Gisborne one and had overlooked putting the 2005 one on my list. Can you tell me anything about the 78 Gisborne production? Did you sing in it? Will tidy it up.

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