Il Mago di Oz

Italian composer Pierangelo Valtinoni’s Il Mago di Oz, a fairy tale opera in two acts which premiered in Zurich in 2016, has some big shoes to fill.

Based on Lyman Frank Baum’s popular 1900 children’s fantasy novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Valtinoni’s work shares the same source material as that iconic MGM musical fantasy film of 1939 starring Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz

Children long grown up, and many long gone, are and were as familiar with Dorothy and Toto, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion skipping along the Yellow Brick Road as they are or were with their own backyards. 

In Valtinoni’s Il Mago di Oz, there is a ditch to cross for the Yellow Brick Road foursome but more than a few cracks opened up along the road in Victorian Opera’s semi-staged production which deflated the experience at Saturday’s opening.

The opportunity for the company to introduce Oz and the Emerald City in its most imaginative sense to a new generation of excited young ones and to the art form they ardently promote seemed missed. 

They certainly have the talent of young performing artists who sang passionately, marred only by a few projection issues – the Palais Theatre is a massive space to fill. 

Nevertheless, soprano Georgia Wilkinson shone from start to end as a perky and mellifluously singing Dorothy. Amply oiled and imposing in voice, baritone Stephen Marsh was a richly characterised standout as Tin Man.

Warm, agile tenor Michael Dimovski endeared as Scarecrow while bass-baritone James Emerson’s Cowardly Lion developed with some tiger in the tank. 

Plush soprano Teresa Ingrilli made memorable her fine assets as a character not met in the MGM classic, the Queen of the Field Mice, and the witches were well represented by Amelia Wawrzon (North), Kate Amos (South) and Shakira Dugan (the Wicked West).

Overall, Valtinoni’s rich and rhythmical score, with its mercurial shifts and balance of opera and musical styling, sets the framework for imaginative theatrical storytelling.

Via conductor Chad Kelly’s interpretation, a thoughtfully paced account was served and the 20-strong VO Chamber Orchestra teamed tightly with some affective playing. 

Many evocative chorus numbers are Incorporated and were especially strongly handled, beginning with auspicious humming over the Kansas tornado, reminiscent of Verdi’s sensational Storm Scene from Rigoletto

Throughout, the dozens of young voices of the VO Emerging Artists and Children’s Chorus fell into line outstandingly, sculpturing a soundscape of great expression and force as a white-dressed chorus of munchkins, mice and citizens of the Emerald City.

Solos and pairings combined neatly, including a radiant quartet as the four friends were about to reach the Emerald City to have their wishes heard. It seemed the perfect place to call interval. Instead, the first act came to an anticlimactic close. 

Then, in the second act, an awkward musical layer of unnecessary and saccharine moralising impeded the flow. That one can find within themselves exactly what they wish for seemed superfluous given the Wizard of Oz was basically saying so himself – a spoken part which Tiernan Maclaren commanded splendidly. 

Numerous interlocked themes of dreams and longing, of friendship and fear, of home and adventure make the story the classic it is as Dorothy’s journey unfolds – spice for every child’s eyes, ears and minds without spelling it out loud. 

The issues, however, resided more so in the work’s treatment. Paolo Madron’s fluid libretto was performed in Italian with surtitles provided in English — a bit too “matey” in translation amongst a good deal of spoken Italian and not an easy task for young readers to grapple. 

Constantine Costi brought his fine directorial credentials to this otherwise slim production. Compromised by the centrally placed orchestra, Costi nonetheless moved and whirled the action in the best possible way with a sprawling cast. 

A mixed bag of surrealistic ideas made up the imagery as part of lighting and projection designer Daniel Gosling’s vision, although an unpalatable heaviness shrouded the stage as if to completely dissociate itself from the film’s Technicolor success. 

Mel Serjeant’s costumes nonetheless met the bill with delightful individuality – Cowardly Lion’s cowboy get-up gets a gold medal deserving prize! 

But questions surfaced. Would not an English-sung version worked a treat? And could not a more child-focused and economised, fully-staged production have been a better fit, for a smaller venue?

The enormity of the Palais Theatre certainly didn’t feel like the right home for a semi-staged production. Perhaps, in future, young minds could help with the answers. 

Il Mago di Oz
Palais Theatre, Lower Esplanade, St Kilda
Performance: Saturday 27 August 2022
Final Performance: Tuesday 30 August 2022
Information and Bookings:

Image: Il Mago di Oz – photo by Charlie Kinross

Review: Paul Selar