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Opera Review: Magic Flute hits a high note

REVIEW What: Pacific Opera Victoria: The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducted by Timothy Vernon, directed by Glynis Leyshon Where: Royal Theatre When: Continues April 18, 21, 23, and 25 at 8 p.m, April 27 at 7 p.m.

REVIEW

What: Pacific Opera Victoria: The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducted by Timothy Vernon, directed by Glynis Leyshon

Where: Royal Theatre

When: Continues April 18, 21, 23, and 25 at 8 p.m, April 27 at 7 p.m.

Pre-performance lectures at 6:45 p.m. (6 p.m. on April 27)

The plot of The Magic Flute moves freely among the human, divine and supernatural worlds, between high drama and low farce, melodrama and romance. Yet Mozart's music, though appropriately lavish and wide-ranging, somehow maintains a unifying consistency of tone. So, too, does Pacific Opera Victoria's splendid new production, in which the competing forces within the story are all neatly balanced.

This opera is at heart a fairy tale, with touching moments of innocence and sweetness; an oppressive directorial deconstruction, an excess of cleverness, a breath of cynicism would kill it. But Glynis Leyshon's touch is just right. Like Mozart, she is aiming for directness, clarity, refinement, economy.

The ardour of Tamino and Pamina, the clowning of Papageno, the solemnity of Sarastro, the grand-opera emoting of the Queen of the Night, the magic of the Three Spirits -- all are realized emphatically and with great ingenuity but without fuss or clutter. And Leyshon succeeds in cultivating a fairy-tale atmosphere that is populated by real people, not cartoons.

The drama is touching, the comedy genuinely funny, sometimes goofy, but without operatic grandstanding or cutesiness. (The spoken dialogue is in English -- a great boon to the comedy. Nothing destroys the rhythm of a joke like checking the surtitles for the punchline.)

The cast is strong, in the leads as well as the smaller roles (loved the Three Spirits, the Speaker and especially the Three Ladies). Timothy Vernon's accompaniments are characteristically sensitive, his tempos nicely judged and flexible. Now and then the orchestra gets to show off its tightness and deliciously wind-heavy sound, as in the sparkling overture or the heartbreaking coda to Pamina's aria.

Colin Ainsworth's Tamino, a pink-cheeked, open-hearted boy next door, is winning and believable. Shannon Mercer's Pamina is tender, guileless and, in her moments of anguish, deeply moving. Both sing with a great deal of emotional urgency and nuance but never sound overwrought.

Aline Kutan, as the Queen of the Night, is a volcano, commanding the stage vocally and dramatically, while Uwe Dambruch brings quiet dignity and fatherly authority (and a nice low E) to the role of Sarastro. Michel Corbeil, stooped and all angles as Monostatos, makes a magnificently serpentine villain. (Conceived as a black, Monostatos is a Frenchman here, a change that pays some comic dividends at the expense of the character's necessary exoticism.)

Hugh Russell, singing and acting with easy assurance, does a bravura turn as Papageno. He is immensely entertaining as the bumpkin who is at once coward and braggart and whose appetites overrule his reason, but affecting, too, as the goodhearted, put-upon soul who yearns for love. Leyshon gives full rein to the music-hall side of this character, even raising the house lights when Papageno appeals to the audience during his ludicrous suicide attempt.

The physical side uses relatively few elements, carefully chosen and tellingly deployed. Simple means produce striking effects, as when a great bolt of white fabric sweeps down from on high to form Pamina's bed.

Inspired by the elegant, exotic Art Nouveau architecture of fin-de-si├Ęcle Vienna, the production is beautiful to look at, awash in rich autumn colours. Computer-generated projections provide much of the necessary imagery, beginning with the giant serpent in the first scene, and help to delineate the different worlds of the various characters.

This production does not want for creative imagination.