Mozart's The Magic Flute

Dates 27, 30 January, 1, 3, 6, 8 February 2007 @ 19:30 Venue Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Tamino Philippe Castagner Pamina Nathalie Paulin Sarastro Kevin Short Queen of the Night Hwang Sin Nyung
Papageno Etienne Dupuis Papagena Angela Welch Monostatos Michel Corbeil

Scenery Kevin McAllister 1st Nations Scenery Consultant Carey Newman
Christine Reimer and John Powell Lighting Alan Brodie

Reviewer J H Stape

A Coast Salish Magic Flute? The most expensive production in the company's history (a cool $1.4 million). A media barrage, including a special flyer on the production with the programme, cultural sensitivities, First Nations' involvement. Anyone even glancing at the local rags can't but be aware of that something has been astir at Vancouver Opera, not that the organization has played staid in the past five or six years as it has audiences have boomed and its artistic direction has grown increasingly bold. Might the traditionalists actually boo? (Unlikely in what Jan Morris called "overnice" Vancouver.) Would the avant-gardistes swoon with delight? (Hey, we're easy audiences here). The really big questions, aside from the point of conflating Mozart's Masonic fairy tale and Coast Salish culture in the first place, is: Has the fuss panned out? Did the production -- and this was mainly about "the Konzept" -- pan out?

Not to my mind. The Coast Salish (about whom I with the majority of the audience know virtually nothing) apparently lived in near perpetual darkness (this staging of The Magic Flute must be the darkest ever seen), near or sometimes on a moveable rock in a complete void (the stage was almost bare all the time), possibly near water, but certainly not near a forest, even a symbolic one, although Papageno claimed to be a birdcatcher. And they also seem to have been extremely few in number (the chorus looked thin and small). Aside from the costumes, I kept wondering where $1.4 million went. Certainly not on the set, which, simple in the extreme, consisted of a walkway and a craggy rock that kept moving about, either on its own or pushed by sprites.

And how did the Konzept deliver otherwise? Well, Mozart and his librettist proved pretty expendable. Sarastro's address to Isis and Osiris (male and female principles) became pure monotheism, though of a politically correct sexlessness, and more astonishing still Sarastro and the Queen of the Night kiss and make up, as it were, whereas Mozart's ending has the Sun (Sarastro) conquering the Night (the Queen). (One truly cutting edge production I've seen of the opera has Sarastro give a gun to Pamina, and she proceeded, without flinching, to pop off Mom with a bullet to the head.)

The one decision that did work in an opera that has so much spoken dialogue was the use of English throughout, rather than the always somewhat awkward switch from German for the sung parts and English for the spoken ones. In this cavernous barn of a theatre, however, even the spoken lines could have been usefully sur-titled, and the gestures to the native language simply got lost.

Vancouver Opera has done much, much better productions with a lot less moolah and a lot less hooplah: an edge-of-your seat production of Faust, a riveting Dialogues of the Carmelites, and, to go back a bit further, an illuminating Turandot and Rake's Progress that displayed sheer brilliance. No, this Magic Flute wasn't downright silly, but neither was it illuminating or magical, and that ought to have been the aim. Throwing a lot of money at a production doesn't necessarily bring big rewards, as the flop of the Metropolitan Opera's kitschy The First Emperor recently proved -- though at least there was something to look on stage at for two million bucks, with Domingo and Futral tossed in to boot. But they also had Tan Dun's appalling music for it, and at least we got Mozart.

Well, sorta. The singing, with one exception, was adequate rather than exciting, and the tempi in the pit were not slow but at times downright sluggish in a performance that had something of the run-of-the mill about it from an orchestra that usually shines. The finest overall vocal performance was by Korean soprano Hwang Sin Nyung, who delivered in spades as The Queen of the Night, and used her costume (she was dressed as a moth) to dramatic purpose. Her coloratura effects were seamless, the high notes delivered with ease, and she knew how to move on stage -- or, should I say, in the dark.

Phillipe Castagner's Tamino was carefully thought out and sincere, his light John McCormack-type tenor interestingly coloured. He was also generally a pleasing stage presence. Nathalie Paulin, a singing actress who always delivers, had her plangent and plaintive aria ruined by a technical gaffe with the sudden appearance of the computer programme on the set just drawing out the belly laughs. (Well, it don't take much to amuse the folks here.)

Kevin Short's Sarastro lacked vocal heft, and he displayed all the acting talents of a totem pole, and indeed for all the jumping about sprites in body stockings this seemed a terribly static performance altogether. Etienne Dupuis made a charming and attractive Papageno, but his voice, not large, sounded more suited to musical comedy than to the opera stage (Flute! rather than Die Zauberflöte). The Monostatos of Michel Corbeil was energetic and vocally secure, although the fact that he was dressed as a rat distracted as much as it threw light on this real nasty.

On the whole, this was a big disappointment, although some audience members cheered, perhaps the ones that came dressed in semi-native costume, either never having heard of "cultural appropriation" or still in recovery from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and none booed. The evening's real achievement was to manage to make Mozart boring -- or was this partly the effect of sitting in the dark for nearly three hours in cramped seats, in a theatre that, after an hour, always feels like being in economy class? For all the production team's good intentions, this Flute mightily lacked heart and real vitality, as things do when designed by a committee, whatever its impeccable cultural credentials.

© 2007 J H Stape