The Magic Flute

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

29/09/2009 - 10/10/2009

Production Details

Tickets are now on sale for Southern Opera’s latest production – Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  This charming opera opens on 29th September for a 6 performance season at the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch. 

This is an opera unlike any other – written as pure entertainment, it is a magical mixture of fantasy, drama, comedy and romance set to enchanting music.

The Magic Flute takes us on the musical journey of a lifetime into another world – a world of mystery and manipulation where things are not what they seem.  Drawn into this magical kingdom, Prince Tamino encounters monsters, a bird-catcher, and an evil Queen and is swept away on his quest to rescue the beautiful princess.

Southern Opera has secured an internationally acclaimed cast of predominantly New Zealand singers accompanied by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and all under the baton of conductor Tom Woods. 

The cast features James Rodgers as Tamino, Rebecca Ryan as Pamina, Jared Holt as Papageno and Anna Argyle as Papagena.  Young Australian soprano Emma Pearson is The Queen of the Night appearing alongside Grant Dickson as Sarastro and Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua as Monostatos.  These exceptional singers appear alongside a cast of more than 50 performers.

Working closely with director Linda Kitchen is a design team comprised of Robin Rawstorne as the Set and Costume Designer, with lighting design by Rob Peters.  The production features a locally sourced production crew headed by Production Manager, Rob Peters.

With a young and dynamic cast and fantastic set and costumes this production is a visual and musical spectacle so come into this secret world and experience the music and mystery of The Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute will be performed in English.

Tickets are available from $ 25 from Ticketek.
Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, September 29, October 1, 3, 6, 8 & 10

Set & Costume Designer:  Robin Rawstorne
Lighting Designer:  Rob Peters

With the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra

Tamino:  James Rodgers
Pamina:  Rebecca Ryan
Papageno:  Jared Holt
Papagena:  Anna Argyle
The Queen of the Night:  Emma Pearson
Sarastro:  Grant Dickson
Monostatos:  Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua
The Speaker:  Wade Kernot
First Lady:  Janette Walker
Second Lady:  Rachel Doig
Third Lady:  Rachelle Pike
First Priest:  Stu Myles
Second Priest:  Mark Tavendale
First Armed Man:  Ravil Atlas

Musically exceptional amid directorial ambiguities

Review by Tony Ryan 02nd Oct 2009

"Enter a World where things are not what they seem" – so goes Southern Opera’s advertising catch-phrase for this new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

It’s certainly different, and it’s certainly thought-provoking but, after seeing it for a second time last night, the thing that strikes me most – and confirms my impression from opening night on Tuesday – is the superb singing of every member of the cast.

I have not experienced such a consistently fine team of singers on a New Zealand stage for many years (NBR New Zealand Opera’s even more outrageous – but brilliantly conceived and effective – recent production of The Italian Girl in Algiers, for example, was somewhat compromised by the unevenness of the singing).

In this Magic Flute, from the firmly incisive and lyrical voices of Tamino (James Benjamin Rodgers) and Pamina (Rebecca Ryan), to the Two Priests (Stu Myles and Mark Tavendale), the Armed Men (Ravil Atlas was a welcome surprise for such a small role so late in the evening), and the superbly effective Three Boys, everyone sings with perfect intonation, firm tone, clear diction and a very welcome consistency of expressive and legato phrasing.  

I would be impressed with this ensemble anywhere in the world. The fact that the performances are in English, rather than German, matters not-a-jot in the context of such committed and convincing singing.  A less-than-effective opera production (not that this is such) can still impress with fine singing, but even a good production cannot survive below-average singing. In this production every new character and every new entry impresses with the quality and integrity of its performance.

Jared Holt as Papageno may not be a natural comedian, but his singing and characterisation are as fine as any and, in the relatively small role of Papagena, Anna Argyle is an excellent complement to Papageno’s clowning, both in singing and in characterisation.

The Three Ladies (Janette Walker, Rachel Doig and Rachelle Pike) are so ideal as to make one marvel at the shear depth of quality and talent that Southern Opera has assembled for this season.

The entry of the Queen of the Night always has me sitting on the edge of my seat in anticipation of how the singer might cope with the (almost) excessive range and coloratura virtuosity that Mozart demands. I need not have worried; Emma Pearson is fully up to every high-wire challenge that the composer throws at her. Within these technical demands, the singer even manages to vary her expression from passionate malice to manipulative persuasion and from self-pity to self-importance. Her spectacular vengeance aria in Act 2 is a real show-stopper and the audience responded with loud and prolonged enthusiasm at both performances that I attended.  

The Queen’s antithesis, in every respect – character, range, musical style – is, of course, Sarastro and, like the Canterbury Opera production back in 1986, this role is again sung by Grant Dickson. His rich, resonant voice may not be as steady as it was twenty-three years ago, but his experience and characterisation still shine through and he makes the part as dramatically convincing as anyone could wish. His second aria In diesen heil’gen Hallen (the English translation doesn’t read well on paper) is particularly affecting and brings a new sense of wonder at the astonishing inspiration of Mozart’s sublime score.

Monostatos (Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua) and The Speaker (Wade Kernot) complete this exceptional cast, the one with infectious characterisation (both comic and malevolent), the other with opulent vocal tone and imposing stage presence.

The quality of the principals is also fully matched by the large chorus and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, both of which sing and play stunningly throughout the evening. The variety of instrumental colour and texture in Mozart’s great score is endlessly astonishing and the orchestra’s contribution cannot be too highly praised. The consistently superior musical values that conductor Tom Woods and his assistant Holly Mathieson have established in this production are most impressive.

So, what about the production? Professional Opera in Christchurch really came of age in 1986 with Elric Hooper’s miraculous production of this same piece for Canterbury Opera, but a new Magic Flute production can’t revisit an old one and hope to capture the same effect; it has to make its own statement and create its own sense of the piece’s fascination. Linda Kitchen’s production for Southern Opera is worlds away from both of Canterbury Opera’s stagings (the last in 1996). The word "interventionist" comes to mind, but this director certainly has a very clear personal vision of what the opera is about. It’s difficult to talk about the production without giving the show away to the remaining audiences, but I’m going to anyway.

The first clue to Linda Kitchen’s rather intellectual approach comes during the Overture when a man from the audience is taken up onto the stage, programme in hand, dinner jacket and all, and thrown into the world of the Magic Flute. (My place in the stalls at the second performance gave me a much clearer view of this piece of business than my seat near the front of the gallery on opening night.) The man turns out to be Tamino whose adventures we then follow on his journey through the drama. This is a very clever idea indeed because, if we see the plot and its characters through Tamino’s eyes, the whole, much-discussed, apparent reversal of good and evil between Act 1 and Act 2 makes perfect sense; it’s all to do with how Tamino perceives the characters that he encounters and how his perception changes as he becomes more ‘enlightened’ by his experiences. So, in a very real sense, Tamino represents the audience and the way in which Mozart and Schikenader intended us to understand their opera.

I’m sure that Linda Kitchen must be familiar with the British director Robert Carson’s production of Monteverdi’s Poppea at Glyndebourne last year where he does exactly the same thing, with several of the characters actually entering from the front row of the audience. And Robert Carson makes the comment in an interview, that one of his purposes in dressing characters like members of the audience is so as "not to let the audience off the hook" so-to-speak, in terms of us seeing facets of ourselves on the stage.

Once the opera proper begins we are in the familiar, almost fairytale world of The Magic Flute with the most wonderfully conceived and enormous dragon and a rather Rousseau-like forest – it really looks stunning. And, most important of all, with Tamino and the Three Ladies we realise that the quality of the singing looks as though it’s going to be very classy indeed, which, as I’ve already indicated, proves very much to be the case throughout the opera. On opening night I was simply floored by Emma Pearson’s Queen of the Night, but a second look reinforces the very fine singing of James Rodgers as Tamino with all the lyricism, gleaming tenor tone-quality and, when needed, dramatic bite one could wish for.

The way The Three Ladies immediately begin to undress the unconscious Tamino is also pertinent on two levels: not only does it fit with the ladies’ lustful desire for the ‘handsome youth’, but it begins to transform the ‘unenlightened’ audience recruit into the man of ‘wisdom, truth and reason’ that he becomes by the end.

Papageno’s subsequent entry in an aeroplane is a bit of a gimmick (and nothing new to anyone familiar with the recent Salzburg production with car and aeroplane), but such gimmickry is entirely appropriate to the fantasy element of The Magic Flute.

Then the Queen of the Night’s Act 1 aria really is a consummate depiction of suppressed hysteria that should really warn Tamino that she’s not to be taken at face value. Her entry, dragging a large suitcase that seems to represent her whole crumbling world, is both unexpected and very apposite. And the way she systematically mutilates and destroys one of Papageno’s birds as she sings (a sort of extended hand-wringing) tells us far more about her real character than we normally realise at this stage. Then her disappearance into the ground as if through the suitcase was another manic illustration of her character.

As we reach the Act 1 Finale and then move into Act 2, Tamino moves from his ‘unenlightened’ state to a world of gradual enlightenment, wisdom and truth, and in this production we really are in a very different world indeed. Linda Kitchen seems to have a very cynical view of this journey from darkness to light because we are now in a sort of futuristic age with leaning concrete structures, space-age technology and totalitarian control. It’s as if we’re being shown that idealistic regimes are never as successful as their original philosophical intent.

The structures in Act 2 and the cult of the brotherhood are almost suggestive of Stalin’s gulags. At one stage in the opera the Three Boys sing "Soon superstition will vanish and wisdom triumph; – Come, Peace, fill the hearts of men, so that earth will become a paradise and mortal men as the gods themselves." So perhaps Linda Kitchen is trying to tell us, as the English musicologist Rodney Milnes says in a commentary on The Magic Flute, that "after over two hundred years, humanity seems no nearer that goal" and that this new ‘brotherhood’ led by Sarastro, will probably be no different. Or perhaps she’s trying to blur the line between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the same way that she has already done in Act 1 with the Queen’s clear ambiguity of character. Maybe we’re supposed to see Sarastro’s cult as representing modern cults and religions where the ‘faith’ of converts is seen as ‘brainwashing’ by outsiders.

Whatever the case, this is certainly a Magic Flute for the twenty-first century; I just find it difficult to reconcile what strikes me as two totally different design concepts between the two acts of the opera, adding yet another ambiguity to the much-rehearsed ambiguities and apparent contradictions already inherent in the work.

I have no objection to operas being updated and reinterpreted within the expressive intent of the authors and I certainly found the second performance less of a problem because I was able to accept the concept on a more intuitive level. In saying that, I then noticed one or two directorial comments on the references to women and their place in the ‘brotherhood’. Linda Kitchen seemed determined to avoid any specific reference to the Freemasonry that is a known element in the work, but my brain is still working hard to understand what she is telling us. Or maybe her intention is to ask questions without providing answers; perhaps there are no answers!

But, no matter what the intentions of this production may be on an intellectual level, Mozart intended his work to be understood on many levels – Fairytale, political-social satire, historical allegory, Masonic ceremony, Egyptian ritual, the struggle between darkness and light/good and evil, the striving for knowledge and truth, etc.

Whatever the ambiguities of the production, it is certainly exceptionally fine from a musical point-of-view and therefore not to be missed.
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