I just saw the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Considering the reputation of its director, Diane Paulus, an American known for putting Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna into a planetarium and A Midsummernight’s Dream into a disco, Mozart escaped comparatively unscathed.
Oh there were changes and alterations; but I like what Paulus and her designer colleague Myung Hee Cho have done. I’m surely not the only one conflicted about this oh so popular opera, considering how often it gets changed, whether in Ingmar Bergman’s TV version Kenneth Branagh’s film or Julie Taymor’s 100 minute family version.
Mozart & his librettist Schikaneder created an opera that’s full of misogyny and racist lines to make you wince:
- Monostatos the Moor says “am I supposed to avoid love because black is ugly”?
- Sarastro says “And she is a proud woman. A man must lead your hearts,/For without him every woman is misguided…”
Paulus & Cho give us a kinder gentler Flute, rescuing us from the harsher elements in the plot through a hefty dose of theatricality. While the Masonic rituals are still there, we’re no longer in such a sharply divided world. Monostatos, the comic villain of the piece is no longer a Moor whose “soul is as black as his face,” but now is closer to the Nutcracker’s Mouse king, wearing a long tail and ears, prancing around the stage in a way that removes any possibility of menace or offense.
The usual presentation of the opera centres on the quest of Prince Tamino and his side-kick Papageno, where Pamina is the object of the prince’s affections. Paulus gives us a meta-theatrical scenario, where Pamina watches an opera-within-the-opera. Instead of Tamino’s quest being central, it’s now framed by Pamina’s story. Instead of Papageno singing his aria “Ein mädchen oder weibchen” as a musing soliloquy, he’s now surrounded by girls as he sings. The opera is no longer so over-balanced towards the male side of the equation.
Isabel Bayrakdarian shoulders a larger responsibility than usual in this reading. Pamina can’t simply appear for her few key moments, as would usually happen, but must also be in character persuasively every time we see her even if she’s merely in the audience watching Tamino pursued by the serpent, watching the Queen emerge (who looks directly at her daughter), watching Papageno. The success of this production can be laid at her feet, given that she is never less than intensely persuasive, fully committed to her character, and a joy to listen to.
Opposite her, Michael Schade brings his familiar sound back to Toronto. It’s a great feeling watching two capable local stars carrying this opera. Schade’s strength is more vocal than dramatic, a true virtuoso performance.
In fairness, I must acknowledge that there are the usual female characters in this opera, particularly at the beginning before their power fades. They are particularly strong in this conception of the opera:
- first we meet the Three Ladies, who rescue Tamino from the serpent in the first scene of the opera. Their striking identical costumes, long braids and glasses, remind me of a cross between Xena Warrior Princess and Tina Fey from 30 Rock. The result is a kind of nerdy feminist power that are the most interesting sight onstaqe whenever they appear.
- So long as she can sing, the most memorable figure in a Magic Flute is always the Queen of the Night, and Paulus & Cho don’t disrupt that effect. Full marks to Aline Kutan, who powers through both arias flawlessly, aided by another stunning creation from Cho.
Johannes Debus, the Conductor & COC Music Director led a splendid reading of this familiar score. Debus follows nicely in the same tradition as Richard Bradshaw, favoring quick tempi. I was intrigued to hear some passages in the orchestra that were elaborated da capos, comparable to what we sometimes hear from vocalists, but this time coming from orchestral musicians. Why not?! I’m looking forward to hearing more of that.
There’s one final thing about Paulus’s interpretation to appreciate. The end is strongly reminiscent of the way the characters step out of character for epilogues in Don Giovanni and Marriage of Figaro. Why must the Queen of the Night, the Three Ladies, and Monostatos be banished (the way it’s written in the opera, actually!) when Sarastro preaches forgiveness? I was very happy with the dance at the end, a fitting conclusion to a wonderful production.
The COC‘s The Magic Flute runs until February 25th at the Four Seasons Centre.