The Magic Flute

Westpac St James, Wellington

17/06/2006 - 24/06/2006

Production Details

an opera in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
directed by Stanley M Garner (original director, Sir Peter Hall)

Set and costume design: Gerald Scarfe
Lighting design: Michael Knapp

production owned by Los Angeles Opera

Mozart’s most irresistible opera in a dazzling production

Magic and mystery join with quirky humour in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The romantic fairytale is popular with long-time opera-goers for its tunefulness and wit, and is a great ‘first opera’ for beginners.

The handsome Prince Tamino has fallen in love with an image of the beautiful Pamina. During his journey to find her, he encounters some mysterious characters: the Queen of the Night, some watchful guides, a lonely birdcatcher and the forbidding ruler Sarastro. Tamino’s magic flute may help him, but his own strength will be the key.

This enchanting production was originally devised and staged by British theatre great Sir Peter Hall for Los Angeles Opera. At the directing helm is Stanley M. Garner, making a welcome return to New Zealand after his success here in 2005 with Don Giovanni. The dazzling, fantastical sets and costumes are designed by renowned political cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe, famous for creating the animation for Pink Floyd’s The Wall concerts and film, and their live show Wish You Were Here.

Wellington – Westpac St James Theatre
Saturday 17 June, 7.30pm
Tuesday 20 June, 6.00pm
(Friends of the Opera*)
Thursday 22 June, 7.30pm
Saturday 24 June, 7.30pm

Auckland – ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre: The Edge®
Thursday 6 July, 7.30pm
Saturday 8 July 7.30pm
Tuesday 11 July, 1.00pm
(Supported by the New Zealand Community Trust)
Thursday 13 July, 7.30pm
(Friends of the Opera*)
Saturday 15 July, 7.30pm


TAMINO                                Adrian Strooper

PAMINA                                 Tiffany Speight

PAPAGENO                           Richard Burkhard

QUEEN OF THE NIGHT     Penelope Randall-Davis

SARASTRO                            Graeme Broadbent

THE SPEAKER                      Rodney Macann

MONOSTATOS                      Phillip Rhodes

PAPAGENA                            Carla Parry

THREE LADIES                    Morag Atchison

                                                Aivale Cole

                                                Kate Spence

PRIESTS / ARMED MEN     Derek Hill (Wellington)

                                                Dmitry Rusakov (Auckland)

                                                Malcolm Ede

Theatre , Opera ,

2hrs 30mins, with 1 interval

Visually spectacular, musically excellent but lacks dramatic tension

Review by John Smythe 18th Jun 2006

When it comes to visual spectacle, musical excellence, delight in performance and fluid staging, the NBR New Zealand Opera’s NZI Winter Season of Mozart’s The Magic Flute delivers with bells on. Other elements raise some interesting questions.

The production was originally devised in 1993 for Los Angeles Opera by Sir Peter Hall and set/ costume designer Gerald Scarfe (the celebrated political cartoonist) then revived in 2002 – in Plácido Domingo’s first season as artistic director – heavily edited and lightly revamped by American director (and actor) Stanley M Garner.

Following his success with Don Giovanni for the NBR NZO in 2005, Garner has now returned to direct Mozart’s popular lyric opera for the company, staging his version of the Hall/ Scarfe concept with international leads and most of the key supporting roles played by New Zealanders. With the dialogue spoken in English and clear-language surtitles translating the German-language singing, he ensures the story is accessible to all.

In a pre-premiere chat with media, Garner revealed he had exorcised a great deal of librettist Emanuel Schikandeer’s dialogue, retaining only what was needed to progress the plot and get us to the next song. Also in the name of reigniting the opera with Mozart’s trademark sense of fun, and with the blessing of Scarfe, he had dispensed with some design elements. This is the Walt Disney version, Garner proudly declared.

Design-wise, ancient Egypt is evoked with a giant pyramid that splits and turns to allow different settings with the aid of projections, while maintaining the pinnacle of achievement-or-desire motif. Sphinx-like creatures draw the king’s carriage, gold disc medallions relate to the deities Isis and Osiris … A sky-borne bird-boat carries three boy Spirits: triplet mini- Mozarts with Harry Potter spectacles.

The fantastical hybrid creatures summoned by the magic flute – the alliguin, bearoceros, girrastrich, et al – are a delight to behold. Papageno’s feather-festooned bird-catcher costume captures his simple would-be free spirit perfectly and Papagena’s transformation from old crone to his soul-mate is a magical, if fleeting, moment.

Although the production pays it no heed, the connection cannot be denied between Mozart’s interest in Freemasonry – signalled by the recurring ‘knock three times’ musical motif – and the temple of Sarastro, High Priest of the Sun King. This is where the "evil wizard", as the Three Ladies of the Night describe him, is holding captive the ripe-for-love maiden Pamina, only daughter of the vengeful Queen of the Night.

Indeed trying to decide whether Sarastro is a controlling, repressive, misogynistic patriarch or a wise and benevolent leader who seeks a higher plane of being – as a life-affirming alternative to the baser dimensions of masculine human behaviour? – is a sustaining element of interest.

It’s worth noting that in his 1975 made-for-television film adaptation of The Magic Flute, Ingmar Bergman focused the classical male versus female battle by making it clear that Sarastro was Pamina’s biological father, out to save his at-risk daughter from the Queen of the Night’s questionable lifestyle (echoing, perhaps, Greek tragedy’s ultra-reasonable Jason versus the ultra-emotional Medea).

Then there are the Freudian implications of Scarfe’s design. The monstrous serpent, from which the handsome young prince Tamino is trying to flee and which the Ladies of the Night actually slaughter, is a massive articulated snake puppet and clearly phallic. Later, as Tamino faces the trials set by Sarastro to prove he is bold of spirit and pure of heart", the ovoid portal at the peak of the pyramid, straddled by two giant legs, is surely the female counterpoint and placed as the focus of masculine desire. But this expurgated version does nothing to acknowledge that.

Rather more bemusing are Scarfe’s designs for Sarastro’s slaves. The wacky Afro-Carribean look he gives to their padded body suits, adorned with luminous bangles, beads and flower-pot hats, neatly steers us away from questioning slavery’s place in this world of honour and moral worth. But while giving the slave Monostatos, who was written as a blackamoor, a bulbous green body and red skin may more successfully avoid racist overtones, it also renders him buffoonish and completely unthreatening to Pamina, robbing the story of a key dramatic moment when he attempts to ravish her.

In fact the whole production is undermined by a lack of dramatic tension and punctuation that would have appalled Walt Disney and all who work in his name.

For example there is no dramatic orchestration in Papageno’s claim that he slew the snake monster, so his punishment at the hands of the Ladies of the Night has reduced value. Later, when he finally finds his Papagena, her sudden vanishing has no emotional impact. It just looks like the production is in a hurry to get to the next scene.

The all-important tensions between good and evil, responsibility and irresponsibility, passion and reason, are largely ignored. While there are spectacular stage effects for Tamino and Pamina’s ordeals of fire and water, I get no sense they have actually experienced a rite of passage. Finally, the Queen of the Night’s raging thirst for revenge ends not with a bang but a theatrical whimper. One has to read the programme to realise the brief burst of thunder and lightning is supposed to have destroyed her and her Ladies, plunging them into endless night. 

In keeping with most modern productions, the finale where the traitorous Monostatos teams up with the Queen and Ladies of the Night to destroy the temple is omitted. In its place, the loveless staging that accompanies the final chorus – "Brave hearts have won the glorious crown!/ May Beauty to Wisdom be forever bound" – renders the couple’s discovery of "truth" strangely sterile.

The absence of dramatic light and shade is so uniform, one has to assume it’s a directorial fault. At every other level, the whole cast sings and performs superbly. They also meet the directorial challenge of wearing their extreme costumes and make-up, instead of allowing their costumes and make-up to wear them.

Australians play the would-be lovers. Denied the chance to wrestle with different aspects of love and desire, Adrian Strooper’s strong tenor-voiced Tamino becomes a rather insipid hero. His red-trimmed cream tunic keeps reminding me of Star Trek, especially when the surtitles tell us he is "boldly going forth" on his various quests. Soprano Tiffany Speight fares better as Pamina, making us care that her simple desire for love has made her a pawn in other people’s games.

There are three English leads. As the Queen of the Night, soprano Penelope Randall-Davis renders her arias magnificently and bass Graeme Broadbent (also English) brings a relaxed and charismatic stature to Sarastro. The clear audience favourite, however, is Richard Burkhard’s Papageno, capturing a perfectly pitched comic tone in his desire for nothing more – or less – than food, wine and a woman to mate with.

Four New Zealand sopranos excel in their key supporting roles. Morag Atchison, Aivale Cole and Kate Spence are a delightful trio as the Ladies of the Night, despite not getting the opportunity to fully explore a malevolent flipside to their vibrant personalities. As Papagena, a lively Carla Perry ensures her long-awaited bonding with Papageno is heart-warming.

Phillip Rhodes (Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival actor of the year, 1996) adds especially strong acting skills to his rich-voiced Monostatos, convincing me that he could have become suddenly dangerous and frightening if only he’d been asked to.

The Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus are in fine voice, onstage and backstage, androgenised as they are in identical golden gowns and dark sculpted head-dresses, and the Vector Wellington orchestra, under the baton of Alistair Dawes (UK), is excellent as usual.


Shel June 21st, 2006

This review really accurately sums up my concerns about this production. This was my first live opera experience and I took my 12 year old daughter. We both loved Papageno and the Queen of the Night's great aria, but we were left cold by the really wooden acting (except Papageno - he was great) and we found it difficult to hear some of the singers, seated as we were up in the Gods. Sadly, and surely unnecessarily, the three little spirits were singing off key for most of their contributions last night. By the end it was so irritating I found myself blocking my ears when they came on. Overall we thought it was a fun production with a gorgeous set and certainly my daughter loved making the connections with the children's CD version she has had for many years, but I think my expectations for my next opera visit will be much higher.

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