Opera Australia's production of The Magic Flute was advertised as a family-friendly production, and at times felt more like a pantomime than an opera. The English translation attempted to bring the libretto more in line with a modern-day drama, not remaining overly faithful to the original; it thus avoided those sometimes rather forced, awkward translations often associated with operas performed in English. This version of the opera was first performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and was directed by Julie Taymor, who had previously done The Lion King. I applaud the attempt to make opera more accessible to a younger audience, although I felt somewhat cheated that half-an-hour's worth of music is omitted in this alternative version, including the whole overture (with the exception of the opening few chords).

Andrew Brunsdon as Tamino in Opera Australia's The Magic Flute © Branco Gaica
Andrew Brunsdon as Tamino in Opera Australia's The Magic Flute
© Branco Gaica

Certainly, the set and costumes were very imaginative and would not have looked out of place on Broadway. Even the cover of the evening's program looked like it was portraying a children's musical rather than a Mozart opera. The opera opened with Tamino being chased around the stage by a giant serpent. This was a wonderful, colourful creation requiring several people to operate it as it weaved around the stage and even in front of the orchestra pit. The costumes too were extremely impressive. Papageno was resplendent in green feathers and a beak, while the Queen of the Night appeared for the first time raised up with several large silvery white wings, giving her a majestic appearance. There was also some great puppetry. Several large lions were subdued by the silver bells given to Papageno, who then proceeded to dance around the stage as if intoxicated by the music. Perhaps the most impressive costume belonged to the character of Monostatos, who was portrayed as a hunched-over, fat, and ugly man. He had the feeling of the pantomime villain, who we were meant to boo every time he came on stage.

Sadly, however, the quality of the singing did not live up to that of the costumes and puppetry. Andrew Brunsdon's voice as Tamino was slightly forced and his upper register sounded uncomfortable and lacked foundation. Meanwhile, the great bass sound needed for Sarastro (David Parkin) was lacking. His low notes lacked resonance, while his overuse of vibrato was distracting. However, the greatest vocal disappointment was the famous Queen of the Night's aria. This aria is meant to be full of anger and fraught with intensity, as she implores her daughter to kill Sarastro. None of these qualities were present. Suzanne Shakespeare's singing was underwhelming with no hint at all of any snarl in her voice. Some of the best singing of the evening came from the three ladies, who blended beautifully, as did the three spirits, who were played very effectively by boy trebles. There was also good singing from Papageno (Andrew Jones), Monostatos (Kanen Breen) and Pamina (Nicole Car).

I came away from this production unsure what to make of it. The opera certainly does lend itself to a more light-hearted interpretation and I'm in no doubt that it should contain quite a strong comic element. Up to the interval I found myself transfixed by the spectacle as well as the novelty of the production. In the second half, however, the opera seemed to become more and more silly and I was finding myself becoming increasingly annoyed. I felt as if the novelty factor had worn off and I was being bombarded with the same jokes again and again. For me the character of Monostatos became too slapstick, especially when he attempted to seduce Pamina. Maybe opening up his cloak to reveal batman-like wings is a step too far. Similarly, when the conductor entered the pit to conduct the second half, I found myself frustrated when he waved a soft toy over the top of the orchestra pit. Or perhaps I just suffered a sense of humour failure, with the rest of the audience seeming to find things amusing which I certainly did not. Or maybe the cause of it was that I felt my notions of attending an opera in a 'serious' opera house challenged? I am sure there will have been many in the audience who would vehemently disagree with me. On the occasion of his 256th birthday, I wonder what Mozart would have made of it?

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