Review: The Magic Flute – It Felt Like Mozart Was There

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Review by Selwyn Maning.

The Magic Flute – Performed by New Zealand Opera. Accompanied by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. AUCKLAND: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre Thursday June 16, Saturday June 18, Wednesday June 22, Friday June 24 2016 performances at 7.30pm. Then Sunday June 26, at 2.30pm.

IF YOU GET A CHANCE do treat yourself to New Zealand Opera’s performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which continues this week at Auckland’s ASB Theatre. The music alone is sublime, and, most importantly in honour of Mozart, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra delivers under the baton of conductor Wynn Davies.

Queen of the Night's three ladies - Amelia Berry, Catrin Johnsson and Kristin Darragh - Image by Marty Melville - New Zealand Opera's performance of The Magic Flute.
Queen of the Night’s three ladies – Amelia Berry, Catrin Johnsson and Kristin Darragh – Image by Marty Melville – New Zealand Opera’s performance of The Magic Flute.

The director of New Zealand Opera’s performance of The Magic Flute is Sara Brodie. She has nurtured something special from this opera. She has brought into balance the essential elements of the original while giving opportunity for today’s audience to consider interpretation. There’s conflicting layers to this story, a plot with threads that come together to weave a fairy tale fabric of 21st century life. It transports with relevance. There’s puppetry (a controversy according to one critique) that drew hilarity from the audience. I thought it marvellous. It’s so Mozart.

And of course, there’s the music. At times during the Auckland performance, I shut my eyes and simply listened – to the music, to the singing. The orchestra was like the fabled flute and a delight in itself.

Under Brodie’s guidance, Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s English translation of The Magic Flute connects with its Auckland audience. Brodie speaks of softening the accents to accommodate her international cast. It works.

Tamino (Randall Bills) gets his girl Pamina  (Emma Fraser) -  Image by Marty Melville - New Zealand Opera's performance of The Magic Flute.
Tamino (Randall Bills) gets his girl Pamina (Emma Fraser) – Image by Marty Melville – New Zealand Opera’s performance of The Magic Flute.
USA tenor Randall Bills balances wonderfully the initial frailties and eventual conquering dualism of the vulnerable Tamilo’s character.

And Sydney-based New Zealand soprano Emma Fraser (who is New Zealand Opera’s 2016 Dame Malvina Major Young Artist) is the perfect balance as Tamino’s infatuation-become-love, Pamina. Emma Fraser’s stage presence wonderfully supports her soprano performance. She is a testament to the quality of this country’s performing artists. And in this role, she is an absolute delight.

The UK’s Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson certainly brings alive the dark depths of brooding intent from her character the Queen of the Night when she reveals her malcontent to her supposed beloved daughter Pamina. It’s powerful opera that would lead to tragedy, but for the strength of Pamina and that magical flute.

And there was a moment of pure magic at the opening night of the Auckland performance, when a member of the audience called out from his seat somewhere amid the theatre’s front-left stalls. The calling to Papageno would no doubt have had Mozart chuckling from his lofty pew. Immediately, on hearing the call, as if on cue, Papageno, in the hands of Australia’s Samuel Dundas (a graduate of Melbourne’s Melba Conservatorium of Music) interacted and traded banter with the improvising theatre-goer. Then, with the entire audience sharing hilarity, Dundas continued seamlessly with Papageno’s journey. It was comic timing at its best and perfectly in character connecting to the somewhat bawdy, fairy tale, ambience of the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden where the opera was first performed in 1791.

Papageno (Samuel Dundas) and Papagena (Madison Nonoa) triumphant in love - Image by Marty Melville - New Zealand Opera's performance of The Magic Flute.
Papageno (Samuel Dundas) and Papagena (Madison Nonoa) triumphant in love – Image by Marty Melville – New Zealand Opera’s performance of The Magic Flute.

Oh, and watch out too for Hamilton’s Madison Nonoa, who is New Zealand Opera’s Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist. She is fabulous in the latter part of Act two in bringing to life a vivacious Papagena (kitted out with an arty leg tattoo). Oh, and Wellington’s Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua, honestly this guy is absolute class, and, an audience pleaser as the conflicted and brooding Monostatos.

Of course, The Magic Flute carries perhaps Mozart’s most poignant message. As Sara Brodie said, it isn’t simply a story of good being triumphant over evil. It’s much more than that.

It came to me when I closed my eyes to see. At that moment when Papageno sensed hope and broke free from fear and doubt. It was as if Mozart was there in the theatre, his voice clear and speaking as music as his genius fluttered and danced about – speaking from his past to our future, with his cheeky wit, his shock humour, poking fun at the male chauvinists of his time and ours, exposing how dippy in character they were and are, how easily manipulated, how dangerous is the circumstance when envy, jealousy, difference and indifference intersect, when belief and reason, conceit and control align to compel the meek to become the tools of powerful fools.

New Zealand Opera created the opportunity for Mozart’s message to be heard. This review isn’t a critique. It’s my celebration of one night at the opera, and my hope that you too will become a witness to a world-class performance of a musical genius’ enduring gift to us all.

Cast To Watch:
TAMINO Randall Bills
FIRST LADY Amelia Berry
SECOND LADY Catrin Johnsson
THIRD LADY Kristin Darragh
PAPAGENO Samuel Dundas
PAPAGENA Madison Nonoa
QUEEN OF NIGHT Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson
MONOSTATOS Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua
PAMINA Emma Fraser.

*******

The Backstage Backstory:
Of course there’s always a huge team of talent that doesn’t make it to the stage, that all play their part to make a performance, to create the opportunity for magic to happen.

The Director:
This performance of The Magic Flute is directed by Sara Brodie.
The opera was first performed at Freihaustheater auf der Wieden in Vienna, Austria, on 30 September 1791 only 10 weeks before Mozart’s death.

It is said that The Magic Flute is open to interpretation. That its message is varied, is layered within the structure of plot and music.

When interviewed for New Zealand Opera’s programme, Director Sara Brodie says: “It is certainly a red herring to think of it as a tale of good versus evil, but its themes are universal. Like a good fairytale it seems to include a lesson, a hidden mystery or meaning to be revealed.

“I tend to think of it in layers. There is a conglomerate of theatrical layering, which includes: musical theatre, pantomime, comedy, opera and magical effects. The layers of plot; a quest, lovers who need to prove they are worthy before achieving the sacred marriage, battling leaders, trails in an underworld, and the sub-plot of an everyman. And then the thematic tension of: superstition versus the enlightenment, anima versus animus, and night versus day.

“It is most certainly a comedy but one which is subliminal and sublime,” Sara Brodie says.

The Set:

NZ Opera’s David Larsen profiled set designer John Verryt for the performance’s programme. He describes how the design concept always begins with the script. Verryt says: “‘It is impossible to read the script too often. With an opera, you want to marinate yourself in the music as well as the story. But this is a matter of listening, not of watching recordings of other productions.’ The great classic operas have design histories stretching back centuries; he does not want those legacies cluttering his head as he starts work… After the opera has soaked into his brain, Verryt starts to draw. Sketches, scribbles, rough ideas.”

The final set design became rather a challenge for the performers and choreography team. The raked stage is significantly higher at the rear than the front. That means the cast must perform on a slope which is challenging on feet, ankles, knees.

The upside is the sloping stage delivers clearer sound to the audience, the vocals are more accentuated, more balanced.

But it doesn’t end there. The set design is simple. Oblique. Giving structure to the stage. But as the performance ticks along, the set transforms, giving added dimension to scenes, aiding interpretation as the plot progresses, as the story unfolds.

And along with The Magic Flute come host of strange and larger than life creatures, like the Spider that looms from above and behind. It’s quite a menacing critter, that’s subdued when the Magic Flute is played.

The Costumes:

The costume designers for The Magic Flute are Elizabeth Whiting and Lisa Holmes and they speak about how a clever tattoo design was created for Papageno’s love, Papagena that trailed down the performer’s thigh. The costumes were also made unique for each chorus singer, which is a feat in itself.

The Conductor and the Score:

Auckland Philharmonia’s much loved and celebrated Wyn Davies conducts the Auckland performances. Director Sara Brodie says she “adores” working alongside Davies.

The Cast:
TAMINO Randall Bills
FIRST LADY Amelia Berry
SECOND LADY Catrin Johnsson
THIRD LADY Kristin Darragh
PAPAGENO Samuel Dundas
QUEEN OF NIGHT Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson
MONOSTATOS Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua
PAMINA Emma Fraser
GENIE 1 Barbara Graham
GENIE 2 Katherine McIndoe
GENIE 3 Kayla Collingwood
ARMED MAN/PRIEST Derek Hill åˆ
SARASTRO Wade Kernot
THE SPEAKER/ARMED MAN/PRIEST James Clayton
PAPAGENA Madison Nonoa.

Bravo!

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues. Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia's FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand's The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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