The Magic Flute Canadian Opera Company At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Saturday
The Canadian Opera Company's new production of The Magic Flute is fanciful and pretty. Yet, paradoxically, it is so formalized and neatly sorted that it passes coolly, entertaining its audience without enmeshing it in the toils of psychological symbolism or even the customary attempts to rationalize the large contradictions in its plot. Still less does it question why Mozart lavished on its wickedest villain - the Queen of the Night - the most arresting and memorable music in his captivating score.
The production shows stage director Diane Paulus, conductor Johannes Debus and set and costume designer Myung Hee Cho very much of the same mind. They seem to have agreed to keep the action lively but simple, the design imaginative but consistent with the incorporeality of fairy tale. The piece is not grand opera (all music), but singspiel, the German term for a kind of higher-toned operetta (musical numbers with spoken dialogue).
Having loved The Magic Flute so long and encountered it so variously produced, it is pleasant to meet it again in this lighter-footed treatment, so nicely sung and played and so seldom putting a foot wrong visually. However it does err in tenor Michael Schade's unflattering costume as the hero, Tamino - a blinding white suit, and turquoise overcoat, over clumsy white shoes that looked more like the boxes they must have come in; or the grim, sadistic-looking dresses worn by the Queen of the Night's three executive ladies; or in the very fancy and glittering but totally unscary fire and water trials Tamino and Pamina undergo in proving their courage and worthiness.
There were, fortunately, many ingenious strokes in Myung Hee Cho's designs that more than atoned for these lapses. The most brilliant was placing the whole first act on a small proscenium stage centred in a lavish 18th-century-estate garden, so that it comes across as a play within a play, celebrating the name day of the lovely young Pamina, precious daughter of the wealthy household.
The next move underscores the complete about-face of the story between Act I and Act II. For Act II the action moves into the shadowy, labyrinthine garden with its towering mutable hedges, where the characters become transformed. The seemingly benevolent Queen of the Night (dazzlingly sung by Canadian coloratura Aline Kutan), who gives Tamino the magic flute to protect him in his quest to rescue her gentle daughter, Pamina, from her abductor Sarastro, is now unmasked as a very nasty piece of work, bent on an unrelated act of personal vengeance against Sarastro. Sarastro, from being the villainous and tyrannical abductor of Pamina, is now revealed a wise and benevolent Masonic patriarch whose aim is to save Pamina from her evil mother and see her wedded to the good Prince Tamino.
The change of venue from little proscenium to vast garden seems to produce several such transformations of character, and these are thus for once made plausible through this relatively simple yet magical design idea.
The other completely disarming visual creation by Myung Hee Cho is her gorgeously whimsical forest animals - crocodile, giraffe, elephant and one remarkable hybrid of bird, fish and goat.
The orchestra played superbly for Debus, and most of the singers in the large cast were beyond criticism. Outstanding, besides the steely-secure and glittering Kutan, were consummate tenor Schade as Tamino, bright soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina, stately young Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko as a warm-voiced Sarastro, Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov as Papageno, and bass-baritone Robert Gleadow as the Speaker. Nor could one resist the three little girls Nicola Smith, Emily Brown Gibson and Jacoba Barber Rozema who sang the three wise spirit lads so sweetly and rode their tricycle horses with such measured dignity.
Several of the roles are double, even triple cast, so if you want to hear particular leads, check which nights they appear.
The Magic Flue continues at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto until Feb. 25.
Special to The Globe and Mail