Zwei Zauberflöten

Thursday night I attended the COC Studio Ensemble’s performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and last night lemur_catta and I were back to the see the main cast. For context, the Studio Ensemble is the COC’s training programme for young professional singers so the cast members on Thursday are mostly under 25 and I doubt that anyone outside Canada would recognize any of the names. Yet! The main cast was a typical COC cast with established international singers playing the main roles with current and former Ensemble Studio members taking the lesser parts. In both cases the full COC orchestra and chorus was used and Johannes Debus conducted.

The stage production and design was the same for both shows so let’s start there. The production concept is that the opera is being given in a temporary theatre in the garden of a Viennese aristocrat as part of the celebrations for his daughter’s name day. As things go on, the aristocratic audience and their servants are drawn in as actors in the drama. The daughter is Pamina, the father Sarastro etc. In Act 2, the stage on a stage has gone and the action plays out in the garden with hedges being rearranged at intervals to create the Temple of the Initiates etc. In keeping with the setting, costumes are more or less 18th century though decidedly Disneyfied. In particular Pamina wears a flouncy pink dress throughout and Tamino is all in white except for a teal frock coat. When they are together one almost expects animated love birds to circle around them. The Queen of the Night looks straight out of Snow White but the Three ladies look more like a post apocalyptic women biker gang or scary clones of zingerella. There are some effective touches; the animals are whimsical without being too whimsical and effective use of dancers is made in the trials scene.

Overall, I felt the play within a play element didn’t add anything much and it didn’t take much away either. The costumes and sets were OK for the work that Die Zauberflöte is. They didn’t try too hard to be “this is srs opera” like the current ROH production equally they didn’t capture the blend of fairy tale whimsy and menace that the 2006 Salzburg production achieved. Of course, this is the personal view of a somewhat jaded opera goer who has seen the work many times. From what I heard of the audience reaction of, especially, children and first time and occasional opera goers, the whole thing was a big hit. In the overall scheme of things I’d rather a production of Die Zauberflöte helped bring a new audience to opera than made my highly enjoyable evenings into truly memorable ones.

So what about the singing? The two nights were different and had a very different vibe. The Ensemble Studio show was youthful and energetic and felt like everyone was having terrific fun. The main show cast felt like a polished performance towards the end of a longish run. None of that a surprise really.

The differences were perhaps best exemplified by the respective Taminos and Paminas. On Thursday Tamino was sung by Chris Enns who looked the part and sang heroically, giving it his all and achieved the feat of making Tamino believable and likeable. No mean feat. Last night the role was played by 46 year old Michael Schade who has sung this role 250 times in just about every house of consequence. He was immensely stylish and polished and it was almost a master class in what a Mozartian tenor should sound like but, inevitably, he lacked the freshness of Enns, who is half his age.

It wasn’t quite the same with the Paminas. Thursday gave us Simone Osborne, who is an Ensemble Studio member but is also singing four performances with the main cast. She’s right on the edge of becoming an established singer with bookings for the next year that one would expect from a rising young soprano. She sang with confidence, enough heft for the role and a very sweet youthful tone, especially in her high register. It was very affecting. Friday gave us one of the COC’s established favourites; the lovely Isabel Bayrakdarian. She sang and acted with great skill but one really wonders whether Pamina is what she should be doing these days. She has always had a big voice for a lyric soprano and it’s darkened, especially at the top end, over the years. Her website doesn’t give much information about her future plans but it will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

The other key roles are the Queen of the Night, Papageno and Sarastro. In the first of these we got the impressive young coloratura Ambur Braid on Thursday and the established Canadian Aline Kutan on Friday. Ambur looks the part in a Diana Damrauish sort of way and did a pretty good job on her two arias. If I’m being picky I’d say she nailed the high coloratura but didn’t really articulate the tricky legato runs as clearly as needed. Kutan seemed to be holding back in “O Zitt’re nicht, mein lieber Sohn” which was distinctly sonically and emotionally underwhelming though accurate. Maybe she had a bit of a cold and was saving herself for Act 2 because she gave an excellent full throttle rendition of “Der Hölle Rache”. The same may have been true of Friday’s Papageno, Rodion Pogossov, who was definitely stronger in the second act. He was good. He got the physical comedy right and went from pretty good to better than that vocally as the night went on. On Thursday we had Adrian Kramer in the role. he’s a very good comic actor and a stylish singer but sounded just a bit underpowered when heard from Ring 5 of the Four Seasons Centre. Sarastro is always going to be a problem for a young cast. Young basses with gravitas aren’t much more common than unicorns. That said, Michael Uloth was much better than I expected and did a very competent job if, inevitably, a little lighter than Fridays Mikhail Petrenko, who isn’t Rene Pape either, but sang and acted the part well.

The other parts were all perfectly adequate. On both nights The Three Ladies camped it up nicely. Maybe their ensemble was a little crisper on Friday and the physical comedy more evident on Thursday but fine differences. Both nights saw the excellence we have come to expect from the COC orchestra and chorus and Johannes Debus.

I’m glad I saw both performances. The differences were interesting and if I hadn’t gone on Thursday I would have missed Simone Osborne’s Pamina which would have been a shame. It also meant I could have a look at a performance at the Four Seasons Centre from a different angle. On Thursday I was up in Ring 5 which is definitely ice axe and crampons territory and very different from my usual seat in the Orchestra Ring. The sound up there is excellent and with opera glasses it’s OK visually. (Plus $22 ticket so who’s complaining!).

Just to finish on a sour note, I am going to commit homicide in that theatre if people don’t stop their inane chatter during the performance. Also, is it asking too much that if you have a cough you take medication and cough lozenges with you to an opera? The one drawback of a house with excellent acoustics is that every cough reverbs around the theatre and once again, the frequency and volume of coughing was bordering on the absurd.

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