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13 January, 2014

Magic Flute at Sydney Opera House. Worth a trip, for sure! "Boring bits removed"

The Magic Flute - WA Mozart (1756-1791)  Sydney Opera House Fri 10th Jan 2014

Written in the last months of Mozarts short life, Die Zauberflöte is one of the great works for the operatic stage.  A moralist love story involving Masonic rituals and themes it is quite long and has been the subject of many cuts.  And this cut-down version is successful, as one I saw at Glyndebourne many years ago which replaced the dialogue with sign language and titles.  That said, to cut the famous portrait aria in half seems over-the-top, like cutting Shakespeare or Holy Scriptures.  More about this condensed version below.

Unlike most of his works, Mozart chose some of the highest and some of the lowest parts for the voice in Magic Flute.  It was written for an enthusiastic impresario who was also an amateur singer, taking the part of the bird catcher Papageno himself, here sung and acted admirably again by Andrew Jones. 

One vocal surprise was Sarastro, leader of the Brotherhood, ably played by African American bass Morris Robinson.  He has a modest but pleasant upper register but several booming basso notes, all except for that one last note which only Kurt Moll seems to be able to sing these days (aged 75 and still singing well).  Mr Robinsons elegant presence and dignity was matched by his musicianship. 

The Queen of Night was Milica Ilic who got absolutely all of the notes and most of the high-tension drama.  John Longmuir is one of those rare tenors who can sing Taminos taxing vocals yet there is less beauty, poise and regal presence to his performance as there might be.  Pamina was sung more than adequately by Taryn Fiebig.  Kanen Breen made a brilliantly wicked Monostatos. 

It was a night of catching up with old friends including a neglected (by me) Godchild who has grown into a beautiful young woman (and who coincidentally majored in playing the flute!).  It would not be January in Sydney without Geoffrey Robertson QC in the first night crowd.  Meantime, some of Sydneys top barristers are probably frequenting Covent Garden!  Governor Marie Bashir was Patron of Honour.  At interval Bronwyn Bishop MP related some Neanderthal views on addiction issues and was good enough to spend five minutes telling me how to do my job better which would be amusing except that some in her party are now making retrograde decisions which will impinge negatively on Australian public health for years to come in my estimation.  What a shame they cannot look dispassionately on the use of alcohol and other drugs by fellow citizens and resist the strong influence of the all-powerful drinks and tobacco lobby. 

The opera was well received and there was even a little audience participation with a child responding one, two, three to Papagenos whistle calls (or was it a plant?).  I would not be doing the pedantic reviewers job if I did not mention the line in the opera about the flute being hewn out of mature oak when in fact the flute used was silver metal like all modern instruments.  Less forgivable was a deafening premature thunder clap in the middle of Sarastros aria; also the three Royal ladies (sung brilliantly by Mss Ede, Pendry and D. Matthews) were trapped momentarily in a perspex Tardis time warp as a certain circular curtain refused to release them. 

Now for the really critical part: The program states incorrectly that this is from the original production of The Magic Flute by the Metropolitan Opera, New York.  In fact it is closer to the later Childrens version of that production (which had no intermission) and, as above, is substantially cut-down.  This was not mentioned in the season brochure, nor on the evening cast list and synopsis.  A long-time subscriber friend told me he was not going as The Flute is just so long yet he would have been pleasantly surprised that it is not a late night and most of his avowed favourite arias were included.  Others, like three German students sitting in front of me, might be expecting an extra half hour or so of Mozart and Schikaneder and be sorely disappointed.  Honesty is the best policy would be my advice (not that the company seems to take advice). 

This issue is yet another sign of poor management by Australias national opera company which has lost its way over a decade now.  After re-reading a speech given by the artistic director from 2011 it is a wonder the company is in business at all ( ).  It contains many contradictions and seems confused and accusatory.  Terracini fails to demonstrate any real insight into the art form and his attempt to rationalise the ethnic diversity in opera is frankly embarrassing, presuming that there is just one Asian way of dying on stage as if Asia was a single country.  I am not so vain to think that I am part of the club which he repeatedly refers to as if it were his mortal enemy.  Impresarios always have to try to please many different factions. 

Despite all this, Magic Flute is a delightful operatic outing and highly recommended for anyone who has not yet seen the Taymor version of this masterpiece.  There are 25 performances up to mid-March.  Two casts allow back-to-back performances, something that is not done very often, but once worked well for Aida in Sydney.  It depends critically on the quality and versatility of the singers.  One only hopes that the second cast, performing just hours later on the Saturday matinee, were as good as for opening night.  This reviewer is not up to both, sorry to say.   

Nor did I attend the season opening a week earlier as it was yet another re-run of La Boheme with singers who we had mostly heard before recently.  The Boheme may have been ideal for first time opera goers.  But in his speech, Mr Terracini lectures old-timers that we should not complain at re-runs of the great works since they are indeed great works (same as this Flute production from 2 years ago).  Yet he fails to mention that once upon a time these re-runs regularly presented some of the greatest names in world opera.  Luciano Pavarotti was in one such re-run on this very stage and in La Boheme.  By contrast, it is intriguing and smacks of a contractual error that world class baritone Giorgio Caoduro is playing the role of Marcello in Sydney.  While it is a crucial role in Boheme, many Australian baritones could have sung it adequately so for a top international star to perform a role without as much as one aria seems wrong headed.  Caoduro sings Figaro, Enrico, Belcore and other top roles all around the world according to his web page.  There is also the risk that he may out class the other singers on the stage.  Just another sign of the lack of balance and judgment one might hope for in mature opera casting. 

In short it seems that much of what the company does these days is side shows rather than core grand opera.  Opera on the Harbour is a side show using amplified singing which is not opera in my book (same for the Domain opera - but at least that is free and a one-off).  Likewise Opera on the Beach.  About half of the season now seems to be musical theatre, of little relevance to the art of grand opera either.  While it is certainly grand opera, The Ring in Melbourne was wonderful for southerners but can hardly be considered a benefit to Sydney-siders.  Would they do Il Trittico in both cities to make up?  I dont think so. 

Is it too late to resurrect a true, high quality opera company?  Or has management pushed their public and their artists beyond the point of no return?  They have certainly lost much of their subscriber base.  Do they employ any resident great opera singers?  And their grand opera output is almost unrecognisable both in quality and quantity from the many decades of marvellous, varied, international standard opera in Sydney, Melbourne and beyond. 

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..