NZ Opera: The Magic Flute, ASB Theatre

By William Dart

New production of The Magic Flute is putting the enchantment into opera, writes William Dart.
Randall Bills as Tamino.
Randall Bills as Tamino.

New Zealand Opera is bringing Sara Brodie's production of The Magic Flute to Auckland after a successful season in the capital.

Many Aucklanders are aware of the talents that earned Brodie a Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation last year. Most recently, there was her well-paced and resourceful Nixon in China for the Auckland Arts Festival; two years ago, she was responsible for time-travelling Don Giovanni into the 21st century for NZ Opera.

Music director Wyn Davies, who collaborated with Brodie on the Giovanni project, is also a colleague on The Magic Flute and considers it the director's best production yet.

"Sara's been able to take on board the seriousness behind the opera, which I was very keen that she should do," he says. "She's worked with designer John Verryt to provide possibilities for the magic elements and we also have a good Papageno in Samuel Dundas, so the comic elements are well looked-after."

Now in his 10th year as the company's head music man, Davies is crucially involved in matters of casting and says this production brought about a lot of discussion.

The Magic Flute.
The Magic Flute.


"Although The Magic Flute does have one or two very famous solos, it's essentially an ensemble piece and we wanted to get together a group of New Zealand singers to play it," he says.

"This is why we asked Emma Fraser to be Pamina; she was one of our Emerging Artists in 2011, and she's come back from Sydney as this year's Dame Malvina Major Resident Artist."

A few characters, such as Tamino, the lovelorn prince, had the company searching further afield.

"Randall Bills is a very experienced Tamino," Davies explains. "We got him through a recommendation of his Don Ottavio in both German and American productions of Don Giovanni. He's a real stylist when it comes to Mozart."

This is music that demands singular singers, Davies insists, "with enough amplitude of voice to handle a reasonably big theatre as well as having a classical or baroque sense of phrase; that combination is quite rare."

The American tenor has one of the opera's best known arias, in which he falls instantly in love with a portrait of the beautiful Pamina. For him, Mozart's music is "sublimely balanced and beautifully constructed".

"Because of its simplicity, it's very difficult to fake," he says. "Bel canto is extremely difficult too, but sometimes you can hide things around a flashy run."

Davies marvels at the sheer range of the music in Mozart's final work for the stage, including writing for the three genii or spirits that is "almost nursery-rhyme simple, even if, in time, you realise that that simplicity is, in fact, very sophisticated".

"There are so many styles running through this opera," he points out. "There are pieces that sound like Bach, others like early classical symphonies and that wonderful scene between The Speaker and Tamino that could almost be an accompanied recitative from Bach's St Matthew Passion or Haydn's The Creation."

Davies admits he grew up with rather "grandiose" takes on the opera, by conductors such as Klemperer and Colin Davis, but soon found he had to "go in the other direction".

"I learned it in a very Teutonic way," he says.

The Three Genii, voiced and puppeteered by sopranos Barbara Graham, Katherine McIndoe and Kayla Collingwood.
The Three Genii, voiced and puppeteered by sopranos Barbara Graham, Katherine McIndoe and Kayla Collingwood.


"My first time was as assistant to the Hungarian conductor Georg Fischer, who'd come through the German system with all its traditions.

"Over the years I've returned to a more severely classical style of playing, with pared-down forces, more like a chamber opera and totally removed from anything to do with grand opera.

"There are still people going around the world, singing The Magic Flute with great big operatic voices," he comments wryly. "But I just don't think that's suitable."

When Auckland last experienced The Magic Flute in 2006, staged by NBR NZ Opera, the genii were played by youngsters, as in the celebrated 1975 film of the opera by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. This time around, Davies has opted for three women - Barbara Graham, Katherine McIndoe and Kayla Collingwood - cleverly complementing the trio of ladies-in-waiting to the Queen of the Night.

The conductor has used youngsters in the past but says it's difficult to get musical consistency among boys, in terms of rhythm, pacing and particularly pitch, especially with a touring company.

"In this production, the genii have to operate puppets," he adds. "So we've chosen three young women with reasonably boyish voices who sing very accurately and have also been able to master the puppeteering."

Director Brodie commented recently that her partnership with Davies works so well because they both have a healthy respect for the art of story-telling.

"Well, we're both theatre people," Davies explains. "That's the root of it. To use a hackneyed phrase, we're coming from the same place.

"We both want to know why a phrase is being presented in the way it is, why the composer has set it in that particular way and how to get it across to an audience."

Philosophy behind the pantomime

The great conductor Bruno Walter felt The Magic Flute revealed Mozart at his most human, while artist Paul Klee commented that had the composer died before writing it, his death would have been illogical. In fact, Mozart died in December 1791, just two months after the opera's first performance, assured of its success.

The Magic Flute was a radical venture after the very serious La Clemenza di Tito earlier in that year. Mozart had been commissioned by theatrical maverick, Emanuel Schikaneder, to write a singspiel, consisting of music and spoken dialogue.

Schikaneder would take the starring role of Papageno, the tuneful bird-catcher, caught in a fairy tale of princes and princesses, evil queens and mysterious priests.

Though the pantomime elements of the work would have pleased the popular audience at the Theater auf der Wieden, making use of the company's spectacular stage machinery, more serious issues lay underneath.

The Magic Flute is deeply imbued with the Freemason philosophy of its time; hence the importance of Sarastro and his temple followers and the rituals that Prince Tamino has to undergo.

In 1957, the poet W.H. Auden and his partner, Chester Kallman, made a new translation of the Schikaneder and Giesecke libretto. They chastised its peculiar silliness, suggesting that a "proper treatment" might have transformed it into one of the greatest libretti ever written.

Auden and Kallman didn't quite achieve that alchemy, but they did outline the important polarities that run through the opera: between night and day, male and female, Dionysian and Apollonian.

Significantly, they stress the theme of education, through which characters can achieve personal and political desires as well as breaking free from 18th century restrictions.

Though they admit that most operas in English come with drawbacks, they may have changed their minds about the free and witty translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey being used by NZ Opera. The wily Schikaneder himself may well have approved of its earthy humour and generous opportunities for theatrical asides.

Performance

What: The Magic Flute

Where and when: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre; Thursday, June 16, Saturday, June 18, Wednesday, June 22, Friday, June 24 at 7.30pm and Sunday, June 26 at 2.30pm.

- Weekend magazine

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