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10 January, 2012

Magic Flute "cut down" but "revved up" at Sydney Opera House.

The Magic Flute. Sydney Opera House. Friday 6th January 2012

I had the privilege of seeing the original complete German language version of this spectacular Julie Taymor production in New York and it is indeed a hard act to follow. The Met cast was led from behind with Kurt Moll as Sarastro and Rene Pape as The Speaker (yes, The Speaker). While the Sydney version of this ‘syndicated’ and cut-down production had all the elements of the original, albeit squeezed into our smaller stage, the singing was not quite of an international standard. The new English translation by American poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy is highly appropriate and sympathetic to the original without some of the hackneyed prose we have become used to.

Andrew Jones as Papageno was the only singer to fill the hall with both his substantial baritone voice and persona. Emma Pearson acquitted both Queen of Night arias with aplomb, a magnificent feat in itself. Stephen Bennett as The Speaker was excellent and the three ladies were well played. Mr Breen was also well cast playing a monstrous Monostatos.

However, none of the other main singers approached greatness in this cut down version of Mozart’s final comic singspiel. It may be that the company has spent so much on the production that they had to economise on fees of top class or better matched singers. Two of Australasia’s greatest operatic talents, Conal Coad and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes were employed front of house on the red carpet in the foyer greeting VIPs. Why weren’t they singing?

Some internet searching seems to indicate that about 35 minutes of the score has been cut in this version. It seems strange that one would cut not only entire vocal numbers, such as the sublime Papageno - Pamina duet in act I, but also slice the end off the Portrait aria at the beginning of the opera. The overture was another victim of the scissors, perhaps a little too heavily wielded.

The opera management has made it clear that this English language version is aimed at getting in new audiences, especially children. I don’t know how such folk are supposed to be able to afford the $300 being charged for good seats. The only empty seats on opening night were about two dozen restricted view seats in the upper decks. These are nearly always half-empty as the company has a policy of keeping prices high, even for such ordinary seating. It was in those very seats that I developed my love of opera.

The production is indeed like being at the circus. There are elements of Dr Who, macro-origami, acrobats and puppeteering. Clever lighting and projections also kept the audience engaged visually. It is just a shame that the standard of singing was so uneven. None of it was bad yet little was really grand either - with the above exceptions. And this is meant to be ‘grand opera’.

The chorus was the star of the night in my view, performing with their usual professionalism, talent and dedication against the odds. The orchestra was also in fine form under the baton of Jonathan Darlington. Maestro had to wave his handkerchief on high in acknowledgement due to the set elevation and extension in front of the pit in this extraordinary production.

Comments by Andrew Byrne .. Now relocated to Bowral but still in Sydney three days per week for work … and just ‘surfacing’ after a tumultuous house move. Wishing Happy New Year to all my readers.