By the end of the evening Thursday, the power of Mozart's The Magic Flute had worked its way throughout the Four Seasons Centre, as the Canadian Opera Company began 2017 with a revival of its 2011 production of this flawed masterpiece. But it took a little while to achieve that state.
The Magic Flute always represents a challenge for any company having a go at it. On the one hand, as Bernard Labadie, the COC's conductor for this production, told me, it's hard not to make a success of an opera that features some of the most sublime music ever written. Just show up, sing the notes and you'll have a hit.
On the other hand, to scale the heights of The Magic Flute, you have to do considerably more. You have to start with one of the sillier stories and librettos in operatic history, one that barely hangs together at times – and take it absolutely seriously. Present it as though it were King Lear. The piece won't work unless you do. Thursday night proved that truism.
Director Diane Paulus decided on a novel approach to The Magic Flute, one perhaps inspired by Ingmar Bergman's famous film of the opera. She has set the piece as a play-within-a-play, as an outdoor theatrical presented in 1791 in the home of a noble family, for an audience of servants, courtiers and family members. For most of its first act, the opera is presented on a tiny stage on the enormous Four Seasons stage, with tons of business for us to watch among the onstage audience. The effect is to radically distance the opera from us, the audience in the theatre. We can't get close to the characters or the story because they are so obviously just there for the onstage audience's benefit, not ours. We are watching another audience watch The Magic Flute, and it's somewhat disconcerting.
Things change drastically in the scene in Act 1 where Tamino, the prince charged by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Pamina, confronts the Speaker, the representative of Sarastro, the Magus whose brotherly humanitarian band is the central focus of the opera. With this scene, the onstage audience disappeared, the play-within-the-play vanished, hardly ever to reappear, and the real power of The Magic Flute finally crackled and blossomed.
From that moment on, the COC production took on new meaning and new power. And that extra dimension seemed to affect not just us in the audience, but the singers as well. Perhaps this was the intention, but where the cast seemed somewhat tentative and unsure of themselves as the opera began, their confidence and expressive power increased as the evening progressed. This seemed most true of Elena Tsallagova's Pamina. Not that she started weakly. But Pamina can be something of a wimpy heroine in the wrong hands, and Tsallagova's full, clear soprano eventually made her a living, breathing, highly believable and deeply emotional character.
The same was true for Ambur Braid's Queen of the Night. Braid seemed cramped and hemmed in by the tiny stage on which she had to sing her first blazing aria in Act 1 – the Queen shouldn't be confined, she needs to be as large as the night sky. But by Act 2, Braid gave one of the most chilling renditions of Der Hoelle Rache I've ever heard, navigating the impossible coloratura lines of the aria pianissimo, rather than double forte, making them doubly malevolent. Joshua Hopkins's Papageno followed the same trajectory, building his comic timing and performance to his last ecstatic reunion with his Papagena, beautifully sung by Jacqueline Woodley.
The Three Ladies – Aviva Fortunata, Emily D'Angelo and Lauren Segal – became considerably more flirtatious and dangerous in Act 2; Goran Juric's Sarastro more magisterial. The three spirits – Sophie Filip-Vicari, Ella Farlinger and Clara Moir – were uniformly charming, however – maybe the most winning characters in opera. By the end of the show, Mozart had triumphed and The Magic Flute had come into its own – its cast dug into their roles and the power of the piece, as from fused atoms, finally burst forth.
Labadie led a highly disciplined COC Orchestra in an interesting reading of the score from the pit. Rooted in authentic performance practice, his tempi were on the quick side, his textures transparent, clear, unsentimental. Reverence for each Mozart note, each Mozart phrase, each Mozart texture were the hallmarks of the reading, and the overall effect became irresistible. As the emotional tempo of the piece accelerated in Act 2, Labadie's devotion to the score became more and more essential. One felt we were hearing the score exactly as Mozart wanted us to hear it.
So, it took a while, but the COC's Magic Flute finally delivered. The Magic Flute is Mozart's equivalent to Beethoven's Ninth, his Ode to Joy to brotherhood. However, because Mozart is not Beethoven, the path he took to that joy is quite different. But it was there in this COC production, sometimes powerfully so. In these conflicted and confusing times, the simple celebration of humanity's most basic truths, whether delivered by a Sarastro or a Papageno, was welcome indeed.
The Magic Flute runs through Feb. 24 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (coc.ca).