If it’s Thursday it must be Zauberflöte

Last week I was watching the Canadian Opera Company Magic Flute on a Thursday, again tonight and even next week. I’m not complaining.  If this is a rut, I like it!

But whereas last week I saw the so-called “A” cast, tonight we saw a different hero & heroine.  Instead of Michael Schade & Isabel Bayrakdarian as Tamino & Pamina, the COC gave us Frédéric Antoun and Simone Osborne, with some interesting trade-offs.

Antoun with Osborne means a pair of young lovers who look the part.  Bayrakdarian is a beautiful young singer, whereas her prince, in the person of Michael Schade, doesn’t match her beauty, although he’s more than a match vocally.  But that’s the most superficial discrepancy.

This is my second look at Diane Paulus’ interpretation of Magic Flute, and I feel even stronger about it this time (and disappointed in the critics who didn’t seem to get it).  I’ve been reading a series of ongoing discussions on the CUNY opera listserv, where one of the big issues is the horror of Regietheater: when a director savages an opera in the interest of a glib concept with little or no connection to the actual text.  Paulus, to her credit, makes her concept work with the text, unlike some of the worst interpretations I could point to (including some from the COC).  One would hope that the directors who actually hammer out an interpretation that atempts to work with– rather than ignore– the text would at least get some credit.

[NOTE TO SELF: maybe one reason directors ignore the text is because nobody is knowledgable enough to hold them to account]

Central to Paulus’ reading is a different approach to Pamina, who becomes the central character of the opera.  In so doing Paulus shifts the gender disbalance in the opera.  The misogynist –and racist—lines are still there in the German, although mostly excised from the surtitles, which whitewash over the worst of them or omit them entirely.  In fairness that discrepancy (between the German text and the surtitles) is probably unavoidable, given that the singers learned their lines long ago.

Bayrakdarian’s Pamina is still, however, a largely conventional reading.  Perhaps it’s the experience factor with Michael Schade that dooms the attempt to change this couple.   Osborne & Antoun, in contrast, seem really fresh in their approach; maybe that’s also due to the willingness of young artists to comply with a director.

I was struck by one enormous contrast.  The moment before Pamina’s big aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” in the dialogue, Pamina enters upon Papageno & Tamino, who are both silent.  Bayrakdarian was probably doing what she usually does.  Within a few seconds, she was already showing signs of sadness.  The aria was immediately charged with despair.

When Osborne entered she was playful and happy.  When Tamino is silent, she’s a bit frustrated but doesn’t immediately segue into suicidal thoughts.  She turns to Papageno.  He’s also silent.  The aria then begins, with a trace of smile fading from her lips.  As a result, the aria began not at the height of despair, but as a beginning of a questioning process, with a distinct dramatic arc.  If this were an opera of an older style perhaps
Bayrakdarian’s approach would be more correct; but for Mozart’s mature style, and indeed, in a modern theatre (where people tend to make up the rules anyway), Osborne’s approach was far subtler and far more interesting to watch.  I couldn’t help but think that whereas Schade & Bayrakdarian have been doing these pieces for years, Antoun & Osborne were reading them with fresh eyes and genuine emotions.

On the vocal side, the trade-off between the casts is mixed.  Antoun seemed nervous until his second aria, when suddenly he found his voice, and some wonderful high notes.  Antoun does present a sympathetic figure on the stage, but not the commanding presence that Michael Schade offers, so at ease with the music of this role that he makes it seem second nature.

Soprano Simone Osborne

Osborne’s singing was for me the highlight of the evening.  While she’s also scheduled to sing Pamina with the ensemble cast, there’s nothing “ensemble” (in the sense of the COC’s apprentice company) about her singing.  She sang the high notes with greater ease than Bayrakdarian, and showed the ability to articulate dynamics such as long passages in a clear pianissimo.  When Osborne re-appeared for the ensemble with the three spirits, she showed us a voice with some power, suggesting her potential is enormous.  I’m looking forward to hearing her again next week in the ensemble cast.

In the meantime, Diane Paulus’s Magic Flute for the Canadian Opera Company continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Feb 25th, including the performance of the COC Ensemble cast Feb 17th.  Catch it if you can.

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