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Magic Flute: Great visuals, poor translation

Magic Flute: Simone Osborne as Pamina and Joshua Hopkins as Papageno.

Tim Matheson

The Magic Flute
Vancouver Opera
Leslie Dala
Robert McQueen
Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Few operas lend themselves to fantasy-land treatment better than Mozart's Magic Flute, and the remount of Vancouver Opera's 2007 production – an inspired collaboration with First Nations artists that merges the Masonic symbolism of the original story with Coast Salish myth and imagery – is pure visual enchantment.

Video projections of rain forest and ocean place us clearly on the West Coast, while designer Kevin McAllister's many references to distinctive Coast Salish art transport us into a culture where magic still has a place. McAllister's transparent scrims and two-tiered set allow the action to happen on different levels, often separating real and spirit worlds. Suspension of disbelief is easy, as is the transfer of archetypes from one culture to another: Figures of dark and light, evil and good, innocence and wisdom are simultaneously familiar and exotic. In fact those archetypes are a little less hampered by racist and misogynist baggage in director Robert McQueen's translation of the libretto (which also includes more than two dozen words and phrases in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language). Gone are the references to Monastotos' "blackness" and Sarastro's rankling, patronizing insistence that "a woman needs a man to guide her." Not even the Queen of the Night is unequivocally evil.

The real stars of this production are the costumes, by co-designers Christine Reimer and John Powell. Reimer's three ladies are fantastic creatures indeed – bald-headed, blue-skinned, butoh-like figures gowned in pleated silk and fiery oranges, their skirts stiffened sculpturally at the back. But even they pale when their (also bald) Queen enters, a magnificent Polyphemus moth in indigo and shivering silvers, with arresting eyespots on the wings and an extravagant wingspread.

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Reimer has turned Monostatos into a rat of sorts, with a debonair frock coat, a tail and a pair of red ears (in Newfoundlander Michael Barrett's charismatic portrayal, Monostatos registers somewhere between Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean and a predatory trickster). Similarly, Powell's costume for Papageno is an ingenious evocation of a Stellar's jay, that noisy West Coast, fruit-pecking pest. Powell's traditional designs for Sarastro and his followers, in reds and earth colours, are more subdued, but they, too, are wonderfully imposing, especially en masse .

The spirit dancers, in nude body suits covered in tattoo-like designs, are also lyrical presences. They might, however, be less pervasive: Although they serve as reminders of a parallel, spiritual dimension, their choreography (by Michelle Olson) is limited, and sometimes they are simply out of place. Yes, they are "invisible" in the convocation of Sarastro's followers, but what the audience actually sees are three naked young women dancing around a bunch of old men.

The musical highlights in this Magic Flute came in unexpected places. The three spirits, (traditionally the three boys) shot their young, bold, pitch-perfect voices forward in clear diction and immaculate harmony. And Aaron Durand, as the "Speaker" (the wise man who revises Tamino's picture of the Queen of the Night) had a beautiful, fluid baritone.

In the major roles, Simone Osborne's likeable Pamina was not particularly nuanced, but her soprano has pleasant, chocolaty overtones and a lucid, youthful energy. John Tessier's suave tenor warmed up Tamino nicely. Teiya Kasahara hit the Queen's high notes with a ping, despite a matronly vibrato and somewhat flannelly tone in her workaday range. Philip Ens' Sarastro tended to bleat, compromising the gorgeous, hymn-like music Mozart gives him to sing, and making this character sound less than wise. Baritone Joshua Hopkins, as Papageno, had the voice we most wanted to hear, and the personality we most wanted to engage with. Strangely, Hopkins didn't actually entertain us until the second half, as if his normally effervescent stage presence were being constrained.

Conductor Leslie Dala's airless phrasing was unfortunate. So were the sanctimonious tempos that bogged down much of the ceremonial music in the second half. Pacing wasn't helped by the awkward verb placements and stilted, 19 th– century rhymes of McQueen's translation, a missed opportunity if ever there was one.

But these are all fixable problems. The concept of this production, and its sets and costumes in particular, certainly ought to travel beyond Vancouver. We keep enough magic to ourselves here as it is.

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