2024 is proving an interesting year for Opera Australia. After 13 years positioning itself on the world stage as Australia’s flagship opera company; sharing productions with the likes of La Scala, Metropolitan Opera and The Royal Opera House; pioneering the use of LED screens for its productions; and showcasing Sydney Harbour worldwide with its innovative outdoor productions; the company decided to take advantage of the change of artistic directors, brought about by the resignation of Lyndon Terracini, to embark on a new strategy aimed at making it more reflective of a 21st century Australia and celebrate our own stories and talent.
While waiting for its new artistic director to take up her position, the company commissioned guest creative director, Lindy Hume, to curate the summer season for 2024. Hume programmed five productions. All are new to the Sydney Opera House, but only one, The Magic Flute, is an entirely new production by Opera Australia, the others being collaborations with other companies. Together they provide a fascinating insight as to how this new strategy might be realised.
Although she has been assistant and revival director on several OA productions and directed numerous operas for other companies, this production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is Kate Gaul’s Sydney Opera House debut in the role of director.
Perhaps in acknowledgement of the opera’s Singspiel origins, Gaul has chosen to repurpose a setting designed by Michael Yeargan for Opera Australia’s 1989 production of Werther for her production.
Interestingly, Hume will also use this setting for her production of a very different Mozart opera, Idomeneo, which will have its Opera House premiere later this month. Both directors have collaborated with Design Consultant, Richard Roberts and Costume Designer, Anna Cordingley on these productions.
Michael Yeargan’s very formal white setting consists of three tall walls, each with a central doorway crowned by a classical pediment. The entire stage is carpeted in green astro-turf.
For those scenes set in different locations, curtains suspended on wires strung between the side walls are whisked into place by cast members to provide backgrounds for shadow puppet images of dragons and birds. The theatre’s black fire curtain is called into service, as well as shiny strip curtains and footlights all of which create an intriguing effect of watching a performance happening within another performance.
This effect is enhanced by having Papageno interpreted as an ocker tradie, replete with esky and paint-splattered overalls, who unwittingly finds himself trapped in an operatic pantomime performance.
Ben Mingay, an accomplished musical theatre performer, is clever casting as Papageno. Although his rich baritone might lack the finesse of more seasoned opera performers, Mingay’s immediate connection with the audience, and the freshness of his Papageno interpretation, more than compensates, highlighted by his delivery of Kate Gaul and Michael Gow’s witty new English libretto translation.
The vocal finesse in this production is delivered by Stacey Alleaume as Pamina. Always an artistic singer, Alleaume’s every aria is sheer joy. Even so her artistry is most effectively displayed in the tender quartet she shares with the three spirit children, Zev Mann, Abbey Hammond and James Valanidas, who persuade Pamina not to kill herself for love.
Elsewhere the singing is efficient rather than exciting, with stand-out moments delivered by Giuseppina Grech with her glittering rendition of the Queen of the Night aria; Kanen Breen’s venal Monostatos; Jennifer Black as a cheeky, show-girl, Papagena and Michael Smallwood’s sweetly sung Tamino.
Jane Ede, Indyana Schneider and Ruth Strutt capture their share of laughs with their broad panto-style turn as the three ladies, while David Parkin, resplendently costumed as a Jesus-like figure, dominates in all his appearances with his vocally impressive, if dramatically stolid, Sarastro.
Other pleasures are provided by the magnificent Opera Australia chorus and the Opera Australia Orchestra, with its sparkling rendition of Mozart’s score under the baton of Austrian-Spanish conductor, Teresa Riveiro Bohm, making her Sydney Opera House debut.
After being tested with some sound balance issues early in the opera, Bohm quickly won over the Sydney audience with her expansive conducting style. Several of the singers also had trouble having their unamplified spoken dialogue heard in the vast theatre.
One of the fascinations of The Magic Flute is how it lends itself to endless interpretations. Kate Gaul has chosen to concentrate hers on life’s contrasts; good and evil, light and dark, life and death, male and female.
Though there is much to enjoy in this production, it is also hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that many decisions involved in its realisation appear to have been affected by budgetary considerations, so that as an offering by the country’s flagship opera company, it represents a disturbing drop in production standards.
The Magic Flute
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Thursday 1 February 2024
Season continues to 16 March 2024
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Images: Michael Smallwood as Tamino and Opera Australia Chorus in The Magic Flute 2024 – photo by Keith Saunders | Ben Mingay as Papageno and Stacey Alleaume as Pamina in The Magic Flute 2024 – photo by Keith Saunders
Review: Bill Stephens OAM