It's telling that Toronto's Elgin Theatre, host to the current Opera Atelier production of The Magic Flute, began its life as a home for vaudeville, that early 20th-century amalgam of low comedy, music and populist entertainment.
Telling because The Magic Flute was, in a way, the vaudeville of its day. It was presented in a then out-of-the-way Theater auf der Wieden, home to notoriously low-brow entertainment. A common singspiel (with spoken dialogue) rather than a formal opera, the opera was a vehicle for the theatre's proprietor, a comic actor named Emmanuel Schikaneder.
It was Schikaneder who conceived the idea for the show – part fantasy, part comedy, part Masonic propaganda – wrote the script, and gave himself one of the opera's plum roles, the bird catcher Papageno.
And the nonsensical, sprawling, confusing Magic Flute would have been long forgotten in the annals of the world's theatrical history, except for one thing. Schikaneder hired his friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to write the music for his piece. And a sick, sad, dying Mozart made of The Magic Flute simply one of the cornerstones of Western culture.
In a way, it's the imperfections of The Magic Flute that make it so powerful and enduring, allowing the glue of Mozart's music to seem that much more spectacular. It really would have been a mess in other hands.
It often makes no sense, with characters changing from bad to good mid-opera without a hint of explanation. Wordy beyond patience, with high philosophy and low humour banging into one another, often in the same scene, it's a real challenge to bring off.
And to Opera Atelier's credit, they have brought it off superbly. One of the great advantages of Opera Atelier's authentic period performances is that it allows them to be modern and ancient at the same time. To do something new by doing something old.
So, this Flute catches the slightly shabby nature of the original with touches of fine humour – a lovely cartoonish dragon roaming the stage in the first scene, creaky stage machinery later in Act 1, bits of stagecraft that would not have been out of place at the 1791 premiere. But this is matched with touches of high modern theatrical art – a gorgeously costumed golden scene for Sarastro's temple, a Queen of the Night on a moonbeam, surrounded by twinkling stars, a simple but lovely rendering of the trials of Tamino and Pamina. This was a production that tried hard (no one ever succeeds) to balance the comic, serious, moving and glorious parts of this flawed masterpiece.
In the end, it is the music that makes The Magic Flute transcendent, and I venture that for those of us who wanted to savour every last note of the score, we might have wished that the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under the direction of David Fallis had taken tempi that were a little less brisk, a little more broad. The orchestra played quite well, but so much of the charm of the Flute is built into small orchestral phrases that can speed by if not attended to.
The voices on stage were uniformly good with some real highlights. Colin Ainsworth's clear, bright tenor made Prince Tamino, ostensibly the opera's hero, a little less of a stick and more of a man than is usually the case. Laura Albino sang Pamina with real emotion , with a richly textured soprano. Her Ach, ich ful's one of the world's saddest pieces of music, was heart-breaking. Ambur Braid more than carried off her two great arias as The Queen of the Night, with their cruelly difficult and stratospheric ranges. To her great credit, she broke through the merely technical challenges of the role to project a real malevolence.
It was in the more purely comic roles of the opera that I parted company a bit with director Marshall Pynkoski. Yes, Papageno is funny, but his humour is natural. It doesn't need to be forced as much as Olivier Laquerre did, robbing his voice, I thought, of some of its natural power. And the Moor Monostatos is simply not a funny character at all. Easily played that way, to be sure, as he was by Aaron Ferguson on Saturday, but removing something important from the overall dramatics of the piece by so doing. The Three Ladies were superb, even if they did resemble the witches in Hocus Pocus. And the Three Knaben, maybe the greatest trio of characters in all of opera, performed here by three young girls were charming from first note to last.
The greatness of The Magic Flute lies in the realization that its glorious, charming music was composed by a sick Mozart, with all the cares of the world crowding upon him, living alone in Vienna, while his wife took the waters in Baden (where he was convinced she was having an affair). More so than most operas, it allows us to touch the spirit of its composer with aching directness, to see into his musical heart with real clarity.
Opera Atelier has created a production that succeeds masterfully in this regard. By returning The Flute to its own time, it brings Mozart to life in a very modern way.
The Magic Flute runs in Toronto until April 13