Above, left to right: Tristan Entwistle plays Papageno, Joshua Oxley in the role of Tamino with the Three Ladies Sitong Liu, Viktoria Bolonina and Jia Yao Sun. Featured image: the Three Spirits move about the Egyptian-themed set. Photo credit – Christopher Hayles
The latest fully staged production to showcase the talents of opera students at Sydney Conservatorium of Music is a slick revival of THE MAGIC FLUTE, Mozart’s final opera, as once performed and toured by Opera Australia. In an entertaining and colourful depiction of the singspiel’s varied characters and concerns, the cast energetically recreate Michael Gow’s version, set in a Raiders of the Lost Ark-like Egyptian pyramid or tomb vault labyrinth.
Mozart’s dramatic directness, disguised in humour at times, must be portrayed neatly for the success of this opera. Here the cast work hard to capture each nuance of drama or expression, and can quickly flip to the next one with knife-edge precision. It is no accident that his fellow freemason Emanuel Schikaneder’s humorous libretto also has asides on honesty, death, surviving trials, enduring loneliness and craving comfort.
In his last work for the stage, Mozart managed to supply sublime music and fitting accompaniments for the complex pastiche of comment and offer it to a non-opera crowd just two months before his death.
The assembled and focused talent as guided by revival director Roger Press engage us with the above themes from the outset. The dialogue chunks are communicated for us in English so nothing is missed, whilst Mozart’s music, achingly accurate to the predicaments, skilfully comic and bittersweet, remains sung in German with all original textual inflection intact. It is not too much of a jarring bilingual blend, with the odd German salutation also finding its way into conversations.
Woven around the tale’s heroic explorer and witty bird catcher protagonists are the narratives of a broken marriage and manipulative custody battles over a daughter. Also we witness the comic Papageno bird catcher lamenting restlessness and loneliness. The anguished lovers surviving ordeals, struggling to find peace, wisdom, strength and useful life qualities depicted strongly in this effectively lit version. This all sounds like modern soap opera but it is seventeenth century Singspiel gifted to us with a sublime score by Mozart.
This cast’s ensemble communicates in finely articulated and varied voice. They appear in Robert Kemp’s stunning original designs of red outfits and white sashes with with white hats or veils. Their calm performances throughout grace the busy stage with contrasting commentary.
Some moments of tableaux structuring across the full stage needed tightening to be more symmetrical and as strict or
uncompromising visually as the rituals being sung about. This will no doubt be corrected in the rest of the run.
This version of the work is superbly cast in this instance, with some shared roles through the run highlighting even more talent from this opera school’s ranks. The ‘explorer’ Tamino is ably performed in sung and acted moments by Joshua Oxley. The performance is strong and consistently faultless. The vocal lines are beautifully shaped by Oxley. His stage presence is commanding, and his chemistry with new mate Papageno, performed with successful comic and expressive timing by Tristan Entwistle,
makes for many enjoyable scenes.
In the role of the troubled Pamina comes a powerhouse performance by Samantha Lestavel. Her statuesque poise whilst portraying someone trying to maintain control is complemented by a fluid and secure vocal delivery. In duet with Papageno, the Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen is homely and balanced.
Guiding the principals around the debris of Pamina’s broken home are the excellent Three Ladies and three spirits. In clichéd Egyptian outfits are the reserved and graceful spirits. In service garb of the
early twentieth century come the cheeky, humorous and ruthless three ladies.
The vocal blend of both of these trios is exquisite. As the members act successfully on their own, the humour orreverence is further enhanced.
Esther Song’s Queen of the Night takes command of the stage in glittering contemporary gown and with a secure top register brilliance to match. Her scowling dramatic resolve , looking down on
others who are weaker, with less of a revenge agenda than her own, is rewarding to watch.
This character’s ex-husband, Sarastro, in suited new-‘church’ leadership mode is performed with good command of the stage by Vincent Farrell. His interactions with the audience, especially in shared anthem or hymn-like moments, are special parts of the expressive tapestry.
There is much to like in this production’s radical shift to the twentieth century for both lovers of Mozart’s last opera. The work easily survives the transformation. Newcomers who love to be genuinely entertained as well as existing Magic Flute fans will not be disappointed with this production.
Sydney and Australia’s operatic future seems strong, based on this production, during which it will be necessary to repeatedly pinch oneself by way of a reminder that this is a student showcase and not a professional production.
The Magic Flute: A Quest For Wisdom and True Love continues at the Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Tues 17 October, 6:30pm, Thursday 19 October, 11.30am and Saturday
21 October, 2.00pm.