For New Zealand Opera's only operatic offering in Auckland this year (La traviata will be in Christchurch only and they are serving up the musical Sweeney Todd in September), they chose Mozart's evergreen Magic Flute in an English translation prepared by Kit Hesketh-Harvey. Opening night featured some effective young singers in a congenial stage setting, but was unfortunately let down by overly hectic and awkward direction. The English translation was not too disruptive, though occasionally singers had to contend with high notes on less-than-ideal vowels. Nevertheless, it certainly aided audience understanding of the dialogue which almost all of the singers dispatched confidently.

Emma Fraser (Pamina) © Marty Melville
Emma Fraser (Pamina)
© Marty Melville

Sara Brodie's directorial conception leaned heavily on the comedic and fairytale elements of Mozart’s work and essentially ignored any of the deeper questions the work poses. A lot that was promising was let down by the overly busy direction. It felt like something was always happening, even if the gimmicky elements distracted significantly from the music and narrative. Such tendencies were observed in her Don Giovanni two years ago and seemed even more exaggerated here. For example, the Genii (here adult sopranos) were given large puppets to manipulate, presumably to help create the impression of otherworldly children. Sadly, these puppets were both unwieldy, the singers visibly struggling to keep them under control, both distracting the audience and impacting the performers' ability to give their best vocally.

Randall Bills (Tamino) © Marty Melville
Randall Bills (Tamino)
© Marty Melville

Similarly, the giant spider that appeared in response to Tamino's flute moved around fitfully during the climax of the tenor's mini-aria, taking the attention from a particularly well-sung section of the score. And for no particular reason, Derek Hill played both a Priest and an Armed Man as a cripple with a comically cantankerous nature. A lot of what was asked of the singers forced them into awkward positions on stage; one of the Three Ladies struggled to sing while balancing on a soft bed and various cast members had to enter or exit inelegantly through a central trapdoor. Nevertheless, John Verryt's set was extremely effective visually, featuring large trees on either side whose conjoined branches formed a bridge over the stage. These trees opened up for entrances and exits as well as for visual effects, at one point becoming emblazoned with ‘portraits’ of Pamina for Tamino to fall in love with. Lighting effects were impressive throughout, imaginatively used to characterise different scenes, to indicate the trials of Pamina and Tamino and to portray the power of Sarastro.

Samuel Dundas (Papageno) and Madison Nonoa (Papagena) © Marty Melville
Samuel Dundas (Papageno) and Madison Nonoa (Papagena)
© Marty Melville

Tackling Mozart's vocal challenges were a cast of young, mostly New Zealand singers who ranged from the very effective to the nearly inadequate. Australian baritone Samuel Dundas came off the best of the major characters as Papageno, his warm and vibrant baritone mated with a confident dramatic sense. He alone created a vivid character, genuinely funny in dialogue and moving in song – one could sense his palpable joy as his Papagena finally arrived on the scene. A monetary throatiness in “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” aside, Randall Bills employed a fresh and light tenor voice as Tamino with sufficient ring to ride the orchestra when required. Emma Fraser had an appropriate innocence and fragility for Pamina, but her voice turned edgy under pressure. She markedly improved in the second act (the scene with the Three Genii showed off a welcome bloom to the tone) notwithstanding an unfortunate crack in the all-important “Tamino mein” phrase.

Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson (The Queen of the Night) © Marty Melville
Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson (The Queen of the Night)
© Marty Melville

British soprano Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson made a fearsome Queen of the Night, both vocally and visually, her calls for vengeance superbly biting and with considerably more steel than your average coloratura. But the highest acuti emerged as something close to squeaks and she required audible preparation (a whacking great breath) before taking on the virtuosic staccato passages. Wade Kernot’s Sarastro was similarly challenged by the range extremes of his role, but in his case it was the crucial low notes that were scratchy. He made some impact with elegant upper half of his range but was miscast in this role, lacking the vocal authority for the high priest. Amongst the minor roles, James Clayton was an absolutely superb Speaker, firm of voice and gloriously sonorous of tone, sounding destined for major roles already. Madison Nonoa was a deliciously perky Papagena. The voices of the Three Ladies didn’t blend particularly well, but Amelia Berry was very fine as the First Lady – she is a singer to watch.

Wyn Davies and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra were idiomatic in their shaping of Mozart's phrases, keeping everything moving relatively quickly and showing off welcome clarity of texture. This generally light and fleet approach matched the fairytale conception of the production. All in all, this Magic Flute was a solid effort from the performers but marred by the director's foibles.