The Magic Flute. Die Zauberflöte. Il Flauto Magico. No matter how I say, it is still The Magic Flute by Mozart. It is still one of his most famous and most loved operas (although technically a singspiel) no matter how you put it. But there are exceptions to the rule. Although the beauty of Mozart’s music is its ability to transcend time and context, there is a limit to adaptation. The Indiana Jones vibe is probably where I draw the line. It’s a fun gimmick, and I do love Harrison Ford but The Magic Flute is less beautiful inside a burial chamber.
Musically, it was well executed. It is undeniable that each of the musicians was incredibly talented, in both a technical and artistic sense. Particular congratulations should be extended to Regina Daniel’s stratospheric rendition of the Queen of the Night aria, which was magnificent. However, despite the necessity for a smaller group for touring, the decision to have a chamber orchestra did see the grandeur of the opening overture and other lavish sections of the orchestration diminish. The balance between the singers and the orchestra is thrown off when you start dealing with a ratio of one soprano to one violin, as opposed to eight.
Costumes were largely consistent with the chosen theme with the exception of Papagena who stepped right out of Opera Australia’s last production season. Although she is the embodiment of Papageno’s fantasies, the dreamlike manifestation should have been contextually relevant. She should have been the fantasy of the Papageno of 1930s Egypt. Unfortunately, she broke the illusion rather than extending it.
Director, Michael Gow, had a good grasp of the opera and the characterisation of each individual was traditional – Papageno (Christopher Hillier) was comical, and Pamina (Emma Castelli) was romantic and sweet. But sadly, the context overshadowed what is already a complex plot.
The libretto calls for various settings, which understandably might have to be reduced for a touring production, but this shouldn’t compromise the integrity of the show. Furthermore, despite the Egyptian context indicated in the original libretto, this is often more reminiscent of a Ramses I setting than the commercialized 1930s backdrop presented by Opera Australia. It was mentioned in the designer (Robert Kemp)’s notes that this choice was intentional as it was the “Egypt most familiar to a modern audience” but in reality, the limited set changes that a burial chamber demands was a quick fix to having to adapt to various venues.
Comparatively to Opera Australia’s fantastical production earlier this year, this felt like a marketing strategy for the location or geographically disadvantaged. The magic of this opera was lost when fantasy was dwarfed by fact. The nurse was right when she said Tamino “looked like a movie star”. And along with it came a look that was familiar and common. The sense of an ancient world that Mozart dreamt of, a time defined by its immeasurable mystique and vast, incomprehensible secrets, was reduced to an oversimplified blockbuster.