Michael Schade and Aline Kutan - photo Michael Cooper
By James Karas
The Canadian Opera Company’s mid-season offerings follow the usual pattern of the adventurous and the traditional fare. The adventurous part of the programme is John Adams’s Nixon in China and the traditional dish is Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Kudos for the choice of works.
The Magic Flute is the type of opera that can withstand all kinds of approaches and be thoroughly enjoyable. Operaphiles, of course, look for the directorial stroke of imaginative genius, the outstanding singing, the extraordinary set designs and orchestral playing. Many of these components are missing many times but no one, not even Salieri could kill Mozart.
That is around about way of stating that I enjoyed the current production at the Four Seasons Centre and now for the compliments and the gripes.
Director Diane Paulus has cast the opera as a play-within-a-play. This can work and emphasize the point that The Magic Flute is a fairly tale among other things. We see people milling around a stage and the opera begins in the stage on the stage. The apparent benefit of the approach disappears quickly and all we end up with is a reduced playing area and not much to show for it. The device is abandoned later in the opera.
The set, designed by Myung Hee Cho, when we moved past the play-within-a-play device consisted largely of privet hedges on wheels. The monumental temple may be desirable but perhaps financially impractical. Here it is only suggested. The hedges are a practical way of solving the problem and if they add very little, they do no harm either. To be fair, she does an excellent job with the monsters and the overall effect is fine with the exception of the play-within-a-play device.
In the singing department, Canadian soprano Aline Kutan carried the evening with a spectacular performance as the Queen of the Night. She has two killer arias and everybody is waiting for her to slip up as she delivers those vocal spikes that reach high F. Kutan delivered them and she may have slipped slightly on one note but aside from that she gave a stellar performance.
Canadian tenor Michael Schade was not at his best as Tamino. His voice lacked the warmth and ease of delivery that I would want to hear from our hero.
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian sang a passionless Pamina. She has a bad tic of looking towards the floor. I am not sure if this is the director’s idea to indicate her modesty and virginal purity (Pamina’s not the director’s) or just a bad habit that is easily corrected.
Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko as Sarastro carried his arias reasonably well but I missed the rumbling low notes of a bass to add gravitas to the high priest’s words of wisdom. Petrenko sings well but does not have rolling notes.
Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov was an outstanding Papageno. He is a wiry and wily bird catcher who managed both the singing and the comedy well.
Monostatos (American tenor John Easterlin) is the guardian of Sarastro’s prisoners by profession, and a would-be rapist by vocation. He can be played as a scary and ugly monster or as a funny bumbling fool of a monster. Paulus gives us neither. He is a small man who is neither ugly nor scary but does have a good tenor voice. He definitely needs to be jazzed up.
The Magic Flute is not opera proper: it is musical theatre, fast paced, funny, approachable and memorable. It has dialogue instead of recitatives and lots of broad humour. Comedy like that travels very badly from stage to surtitles and back. The question is why are they doing The Magic Flute in German? The German lyrics, especially in a comic setting are relatively easy to translate into English. In other words, there is nothing to be gained by singing it in the original and a great deal is lost. We can leave some of our snobbery at home and have lots of fun seeing this musical in English.
Johannes Debus conducted the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra which with the COC Corus gave a good accounting of themselves.
In the end, despite its many virtues, the production was missing the spark of magic that one hopes to find. You enjoy it but you still wish for more.
The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder opened on January 29 and will be performed twelve times with some cast changes until February 25, 2011, at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca