The kids are all right. Indeed they are more than all right. In Kate Gaul’s new The Magic Flute the youngsters are the ones with the compassion and wisdom to set the adults on the right path.
In the production’s most affecting scene a trio of Spirits (Mozart’s Three Boys) persuades Pamina not to kill herself for love but to trust in it. Even more powerful was the plea for humankind to do the same. The opera is wisely performed in English so the words needed no mediation. “Let peace within our hearts rise/ Then the world would be in paradise,” they sang in Gaul and Michael Gow’s clear, engaging translation.
So much came together here to work the grab-your-heart kind of magic that to this point had been intermittent: the simplicity of the language, the tender age of the singers and the close focus on them and Stacey Alleaume’s shining Pamina.
Crucially there was tender support from the Opera Australia Orchestra and conductor Teresa Riveiro Böhm, making an enticing OA debut.
Peace, love, togetherness. The production got there in the end but it was a close-run thing. The staging had a rough ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show!’ aesthetic that brought plenty of laughs but often just looked … rough. It was a courageous decision to use so many luridly coloured curtains of fringed tinsel, although to be fair they enabled extremely swift scene changes, as did the frequent bringing down of the safety curtain.
The idea is sound. The children were first seen sneaking onstage with torches. At this point they weren’t the Spirits they would play in the opera. They were kids playing at putting on a show in the delightfully composed forms of Abbey Hammond, Zev Mann and James Valanidas on opening night (they alternate with a second cast of children during the run).
In this context the chorus, dressed in street clothes that may well have come from their own wardrobes, were also operating in two realms as high priest Sarastro’s acolytes and everyday people. It was a relief to see the opera’s tedious Masonic mysticism take a back seat.
The chorus is one of OA’s treasures and their singing was glorious, along with Alleaume’s by far the best of the night. Pamina’s lament Ach, ich fühl’s, rendered in this translation as “Now I know that love can vanish”, was an oasis of ravishing beauty.
Otherwise, the voices were more workmanlike than thrilling. It’s not exactly what one wants from the national opera company although honourable mention must go to Giuseppina Grech for her spot-on albeit hard-edged Queen of the Night. Her glamour gave proceedings a good jolt of energy.
The casting of musical-theatre star Ben Mingay as Papageno brought much-needed seasoned comedic gifts and theatrical instincts to the production. Papageno may have been a boofhead but he was an extremely attractive one, full of ease. Mingay’s bass baritone is appealing although on opening night fell short of the firmly controlled shape and depth you hear in someone whose bread and butter is the operatic stage.
The Three Ladies (Jane Ede, Indyana Schneider and Ruth Strutt) who swooned over Michael Smallwood’s graceful Tamino worked hard to inject vim into the show’s slightly dull opening, exuding something of the vibe of Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters on a controlled substance.
The major part of the set was thriftily lifted from Opera Australia’s 1987 production of Werther (to be borrowed again for Idomeneo, opening on 20 February), an indication that the production budget was tight.
Nevertheless, Gaul and costume designer Anna Cordingley were still able to have some fun. Grech’s Queen could easily be recycled as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (coming up at OA soon) and David Parkin’s gold-clad Sarastro was wickedly cast as a kind of Jesus figure as imagined by Western artists of yore, all long blond hair and saintly gestures.
The Magic Flute is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until March 16.