The Magic Flute

OA_The Magic FluteWhat a difference a cast change makes. When Opera Australia first staged this production in 2012, it was cast with some of the company’s brightest young emerging singers.

Not all were up to the task however and at the performance I attended, much of the singing was underwhelming, the characterisations tentative, and the staging so insecure and imprecise that one wondered whether the company had really achieved an accurate reproduction of Julie Taymor’s original vision, first mounted on the Metropolitan Opera in 2004.

For her concept, Taymor had taken the “magic” from the title literally, and although the physical aspects of the production remain as ever – the fanciful puppets, the brilliantly conceived colourful and intricate costumes and make-up, and the towering, ever-evolving and revolving clear perspex setting decorated with Masonic symbolism – these elements now appear as ground-breaking as they must have seemed in 2004.

But watching this particular production again three years on, this time cast with many of the company’s most accomplished and experienced singers, who understand their roles and know how to bring the right nuances and style to them. The direction also has been noticeably tightened and tweaked so that the full brilliance of Taymor’s concept is finally revealed.

Purists might bemoan that a third of the opera has been carved away, but what remains is a relatively faithful, light hearted and entertaining version of an opera which can often feel dense and unfathomable.

In this current production the singing throughout is superb. Emma Matthews, making her role debut as the Queen of the Night, is as breath-taking as expected, especially during the famous second act aria, where she effortlessly negotiates the unforgiving coloratura passages with brilliance and venom. It is a particular treat to experience her in this role.

Equally as thrilling, but at the other end of the vocal spectrum, is Daniel Sumegi, whose rich, sonorous bass voice, superb diction and presence, brings considerable dignity, warmth and gravitas to his tormented Sarastro.

John Longmuir and Taryn Fiebig are beautifully teamed as the lovers, Tamino and Pamina. Both are artistic singers. Longmuir’s light honeyed tenor blends superbly with Fiebig’s flawless soprano for their duets and each brings exactly the right degree ardour and lightness to their characterisations.

Similarly the three ladies played by Jane Ede, Sian Pendry and Dominica Matthews. Unrecognisable under heavy blue make-up, their voices blend superbly, and previous co-ordination problems with their dis-embodied heads have been solved so that they now provide the satisfying visual and aural treat intended.

Kanen Breen continues to be as funny and flesh-crawlingly revolting as the evil Monostatos and the three young bearded spirits sing beautifully and provide an intriguing element to the proceedings. However, it is Samuel Dundas, as Papageno, who goes close to stealing the show in this revival. His singing is superb and his confident easy swagger and ability to nail every laugh, quickly endears him to the audience. His duet with his Papagena, Katherine Wiles, is sheer delight.

Mozart’s superb music is in safe hands with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in fine form under conductor, Anthony Legge, who insures that every subtle musical nuance is faithfully observed. The excellent balance between singer and orchestra is also notable, even when the singers were positioned in front of orchestra on the ramp which surrounds the orchestra pit for this production.

The Magic Flute
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House
Performance: Wednesday 7 January 2015 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 30 January 2015

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Image: Emma Matthews as the Queen of the Night – photo by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens