Stage Door Review

The Magic Flute

Thursday, May 12, 2022

✭✭✭✭✩

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Anna Theodosakis

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

May 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, 19 & 21, 2022

Pamina und Tamino:
“Wir wandeln durch des Tones Macht

froh durch des Todes düst’re Nacht.”

The Canadian Opera Company is currently presenting its second revival of Diane Paulus’s production of The Magic Flute since 2011. The first revival in 2017 was quite successful. The second harbours a number of minor irritants but nothing so great to dissuade would-be opera-goers from experiencing a visually handsome production of Mozart’s unfailingly brilliant score.

For this revival Canadian Anna Theodosakis has been given the task of reproducing Diane Paulus’s original direction. Luckily, Theodosakis seems to have allowed various artists to include their own ideas in their performances so that the revival still feels fresh.

No revival director, however, will be able to rid Paulus’s production of its inherent conceptual dissonance. Paulus begin Act 1 with one concept and begins Act 2 with a different concept and the two simply don’t fit together or make sense of the opera. Act 1 gives us with a stage upon the stage and suggests that an aristocratic community is presenting Die Zauberflöte in honour of Pamina. Some of the audience are already in costume, some not. This set-up, however, doesn’t work because the longer the opera on the onstage stage proceeds the more members of the audience on stage disappear until finally no one is left watching the opera.

In Act 2 Paulus gives up the opera-within-an-opera concept and trades it in for the opera-as-maze. This idea of a play as a maze is as early as William Davenant’s “Preface to Gondibert” (1650) in which he speaks of authors “imagining we never have intrigue enough till we lose  our selves and Auditors, who shu’d be led in a Maze, but not a Mist ; and through turning and winding wayes, but so still as they may finde their way at last”.

The problem here is that Paulus’s production leads us in a mist, not a maze. Designer Myung Hee Cho’s series of arced boxwood walls can move about all they want to suggest that the characters are in a maze, but all the effort in moving the walls about arrives at very little change of scenery. We don’t feel we’re going anywhere. Where this idea particularly fails in in the trials by fire and water that Tamino and Pamina must undergo. These are held in a wide open space with the walls pulled back. There’s so much room that the two lovers hardly pass through flame or wave at all. These tests hardly seem like the dangerous trials they’re meant to be..

At the conclusion Paulus does not return to the opera-within-an-opera concept as one might expect but simply has all the characters, good and evil join in a dance. Apparently, the personages we took as characters have returned as real people though Paulus does not give us enough indication of this.

The way combine the concepts of play-within-a-play and play-as-maze is to do what Ole Anders Tandberg did in his 2012 production of The Magic Flute for the Royal Swedish Opera. He begins the action in a maze of rooms (not a garden maze) and then at the end, pull the maze to one side to reveal it as a set and the actors as actors. At the end they all – some in costume, some not – celebrate having finished the performance.

For Paulus, Myung Hee Cho’s period sets and costumes are so attractive and imaginative that most audience members will simply be carried away by the opera’s visual delights without worrying whether Paulus’s concepts make sense or not.

The COC has gathered a fine cast for this production. Making his COC debut as Tamino is Turkish-born tenor Ilker Arcayürek now resident in Switzerland. Arcayürek commands a warm honey-coloured voice perfect for embodying Mozart’s earnest, vulnerable hero. For some reason Arcayürek lists only non-operatic repertoire in his bio in the programme, but in reality he has sung in a wide range of operas from Telemann to brand new works. One can tell, however, from the careful way he shapes his arias and pays such close attention to the lyrics that he is known as an expert in the Lieder of Schubert and Schumann.    

As Tamino’s comic sidekick Papageno, Canadian Gordon Bintner is familiar to Toronto audiences from his days in the COC Ensemble Studio. His has a full but supremely agile bass-baritone and an innate sense of comedy. It seems that director Anna Theodosakis has given Bintner free rein to play Papageno however he wishes with the result that Bintner’s performance is the most detailed in the cast. Sometimes Bintner’s bird-seller moves about bird-like himself, sometimes he is a rag doll. Mugging from joy to disappointment reveals Papageno as the clown of the show as was intended.

Both Québécois soprano Anna-Sophie Neher as Pamina and Norwegian soprano Caroline Wettergreen as the Queen of the Night indulge in the regrettable practice of saving their voices in Act 1 in order to have more power for their characters’ signature arias in Act 2. The result is that Neher’s singing comes off as oddly restrained in her "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” in Act 1 versus her passionate, full-voiced "Ach, ich fühl’s” in Act 2. Similarly, Wettergreen’s account of "O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” in Act 1 comes off as weak and too soft compared to her fire-breathing account of "Der Hölle Rache” in Act 2. Neither Tamino nor Papageno has the luxury of holding back in Act 1 since the two men have signature arias right from the top, and the women should not hold back either.

Nevertheless, Neher’s voice, once we get to hear it full out in Act 2, is lush and expressive and her "Ach, ich fühl’s” is exemplary. Theodosakis has allowed Wettergreen her own take on the Queen of the Night which is quite different from any I’ve seen before. In her appearance in Act 1 and in her lead up to her big aria in Act 2, Wettergreen given the Queen of the Night a facial expression that falls somewhere between extreme anger and madness. Just before "Der Hölle Rache”. with eye-rolling and a tilted head Wettergreen tips the Queen into madness and is the first Queen I’ve heard that doesn’t let us forget that the staccato coloratura that is so famous in the aria is on the “a” in the word “Rache” (“revenge”) and if meditating on revenge has scattered her voice as well as her mind. With firm pinpoint accuracy and crystal clear diction, it’s a fantastic and enlightening performance.

As Sarastro, American bass David Leigh displays a firm, mellow, resonant tone even in his lowest notes. His "In diesen heil'gen Hallen” has such calm authority it sounds like the sonic equivalent of rationality. The one thing Leigh should learn, however, is to acquire a dignity of posture and bearing that matches the dignity of his character. Russell Braun as the Speaker displays exactly those characteristics and Leigh would do well to imitate them.

Having mentioned Russell Braun it is certainly luxury casting to have him as the Speaker. The Speaker is not a character people pay much attention to, but that is not the case with Braun in the role. His soothing and compassionate tone immediately suggests that he is just one step away from Sarastro in power and belief. I’ve never listened so carefully to what the Speaker sings and says as I did this time with Braun in the role and realized how important the Speaker is in maintaining Sarastro’s spirit on stage when Sarastro himself is absent.

Irish-born Canadian tenor Michael Colvin is no stranger to Toronto audiences who have seen his many fine performances. The great virtue of Colvin’s voice is its ability to shine in long-held notes. Monostatos, however, is a role that doesn’t allow for that. Monostatos, here conceived of as a rat rather a “moor” as in the original, sings mostly in rapid patter in which Colvin, quite unlike himself, occasionally resorts to shouting.

American soprano Midori Marsh, in contrast, a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, makes much more of the role of Papagena than is usually the case. She plays Papagena as an old women in an amusingly playful way and her joy in singing with Papageno for the first time is infectious. Marsh’s voice is strong enough to match Bintner’s so that, for a change, the two avian creatures really do feel like a pair.

Another pleasure are the Three Ladies, here conceived of a punk valkyries, played by Jamie Groote, Charlotte Siegel and Lauren Segal. Their precisely synchronized movements and their perfectly blended voices makes one look forward to their every appearance.

German conductor Patrick Lange led Arabella here in 2017 and Madama Butterfly in 2014. His specialty is 19th- and early 20th-century repertoire so that Mozart is rather an outlier. It is no surprise then that gives The Magic Flute a full 19th-century-style treatment and makes no attempt to approximate a period performance as we know the COC Orchestra under other conductors can do. The main flaw in his approach is his unvarying dynamics with forte seeming to be the default setting. This leads to the strange situation where the singing is almost always more nuanced than the accompaniment.

The source of most of my complaints will go unnoticed by those new to the opera who will revel in the production’s scenic beauty and the work’s glorious string of hits sung so well. Seeing an opera about the triumph of the rational over the irrational makes us wonder that there was a time when people believed that such a victory was inevitable. It is soothing to think in these dark days that if people could once be so optimistic about the value of freedom and reason perhaps there may come a time when we can again be optimistic.           

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Lauren Segal as Third Lady, Gordon Bintner as Papageno, Ilker Arcayürek as Tamino, Charlotte Siegel as Second Lady and Jamie Groote as First Lady; Ilker Arcayürek as Tamino and Anne-Sophie Neher as Pamina; Caroline Wettergreen as the Queen of the Night. © 2022 Michael Cooper. 

For tickets visit www.coc.ca.