The Magic Flute at the GGS

I went into last night’s Glenn Gould School performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Koerner Hall with all kinds of questions buzzing around in my head; partly because of an earlier conversation with director Joel Ivany and partly, well, Magic Flute – that most enigmatic of operas.  If only one could go back (more than forty years) to seeing it for the first time!

Photo: Nicola Betts

So what did we see?  We saw a much shortened version of the piece; an hour for Act 1, a tad longer perhaps for Act 2.  Tamino’s “entrance to the temple” scene was gone.  So was a lot of the more problematic Monostatos stuff and the Trials were much shortened.  Among other cuts.  At one point I wondered whether Papageno’s “suicide aria” (which I find rather tedious) would go to but we got that.  I didn’t miss any of the cut bits and I suspect that was the general feeling.  Rather like the COC’s recent remount of Così, less is more.[1]. The music was sung in German with English dialogue (the Andrew Porter/ENO version I think).  The absence of a male chorus was overcome by using the combined forces of the temple servants, the three ladies and the three spirits plus, I think, some prerecorded, or at least amplified elements.  It worked musically.

Photo: Nicola Betts

Dramatically it was interesting.  Maybe it was the start of the idea to have essentially everyone on stage for most of Act 1.  There’s a lot of “observing” by characters who, canonically, should not be there.  Perhaps surprisingly this was used more sparingly in Act 2 but there were still elements of it.  Perhaps I’m overthinking it but to me the central concept seemed to be about “completion”; Yin and Yang if you will.  And on three levels.  There are three pairs who complement/complete each other.  At the simplest; perhaps just biological level, there’s Papageno and Papagena.  There’s a fair bit of egg symbolism in the finale.  At a slightly more elevated level there’s Tamino and Pamina.  Dutiful young aristocrats with little agency perhaps but each needs the other to be fully human.  These unions are fully consummated in this production.  Then there’s the highest level where the male and female principles of justice, statecraft, truth itself are embodied by Sarastro and the Queen of the Night.  They need each other just as much as the other pairs but cannot overcome their natures enough to recognise it, so we see them storm off opposite sides of the stage in the triumphant finale.  Egoism trumps egg production?

Photo: Nicola Betts

All of this played out on a very simple set constrained by the limited facilities of Koerner Hall.  There are some blue “menhirs” with mystical symbols, and a couple of white benches.  Entrances and exits are in full view.  Papageno enters via the auditorium a couple of times.  It’s all, necessarily, simple though it’s livened up by fairly dramatic lighting and sound effects.  Costumes too are pretty conventional all round though short on feathers.

Casting Magic Flute with young singers isn’t easy.  Many of the principal roles require vocal qualities that tend to come with maturity.  Sarastro requires a lot of gravitas for example.  Gabriel Sanchez Ortega was actually rather good.  If he doesn’t quite have the required avuncular quality he has the notes and produces a fair amount of sound.  The Queen of the Night is tricky too; especially “O zittre nicht” where the coloratura lies in a tricky place for a high soprano.  Nofar Yacobi smeared that one a bit but she was spot on in “Der Hölle Rache” and she acted well.  Katerina Khartova’s Pamina was accurate and expressive but I think her voice is one you either like or don’t.  I find it bright but tolerably so.  YMMV.  She was also quite touching.  Zachary Rioux is a very promising Mozart tenor.  He sang his big arias well with just not quite the ideal degree of effortlessness.  It will come.  Katelyn Bird (I didn’t make that up) made the most of what little Papagena has to do and had excellent chemistry with Noah Grove’s Papageno.  He’s really the one who pulls this show together and brings it alive.  He sings very well but it was his characterisation and comic timing in the dialogue that impressed more.  I’m not sure Magic Flute is supposed to be “about” Papageno but that’s how it felt last night.

The supporting roles were pretty good.  I thought the Three Spirits, sung by young female sopranos, were quite charming and the Three Ladies were pretty decent though much of the time I’d have been hard pressed to say what language they were singing in if I didn’t know.  The temple servants swapped roles around effectively and Christopher Miller was almost sympathetic as Monostatos (and if this piece is about “completion” where does he fit?).  Nathan Brock’s conducting seemed to emphasise the monumental aspects of the piece with winds quite prominent and a rather restrained string sound.  Pit/stage co-ordination was fine.

So, it’s a much shortened, tight production that copes well with the limitations of Koerner.  There may even be a concept in there!  The singing and acting ranges from pretty decent to much better than that.  It’s a good student show.  There’s one more chance to see it; tomorrow night at 7.30pm.

Photo credits: Nicola Betts

fn1:  In all the (endless) discussions about “attracting a new opera audience” cutting canonical works down to size doesn’t get much of mention.  I think maybe it should.  Many of the classics are too long and have really tedious bits which seem designed solely to spin the work out to the length an 18th/19th century audience demanded.  Why not shorten them to match the expectations of a modern audience that expects a movie to be over in 90 minutes?

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