More magic needed for this Flute

In 2005, the New York Metropolitan Opera created an abridged family-friendly version of Mozart and Schnikeneder’s  The Magic Flute. Heading the creative team was Julie Taymor, Tony-winner for her direction of the uber-gorgerous stage production of The Lion King, and the result is as magical as Mozart could ever have imagined with flying bird puppets that sweep across the audience, Ladies with floating heads,  adorable giant dancing bears and intimidating fire-faced priests

The Magic Flute. Andrew Jones as Papageno.Photo by Jeff Busby.
The Magic Flute. Andrew Jones as Papageno.Photo by Jeff Busby.

Having loved The Lion King and Taymor’s film work, my expectations for this production were high; especially as there is no reason why the Opera Australia production shouldn’t be as wonderful as anything at The Met.

Introducing opera to children; introducing opera to anyone is brilliant, and will create a fan for life if that first experience is a great one. As this production was conceived for children, it was wonderful to see people much younger than me in audience.  Not only are they better behaved than many dragged-along partners, but they get it; they accept worlds where people sing and magic is natural and don’t roll their eyes because they can hear the set being moved.

Taymor knows that best children’s theatre is just as much for grown ups and never cuts a corner or assumes that young minds aren’t smart, but OA hasn’t quite got the the balance. There seems a reluctance to let go and really have fun, in case the opera-buff adults get upset.

Directed by Matthew Barclay, this production proves the magic of the original, but it seemed to rely on the impact of the colourful, Wicca-meets-Meccano design (George Tsypin, Michael Curry and Taymor), instead of finding it’s own way and ensuring that story and character are always at the forefront. No matter how amazing a costume is, it needs a solid character to make it live – even a non-moving chorister. And even if the plot is still a bit contrived, it’s story that makes us want to know what happens next and cheer when love is found.
For all it’s magical hijinks, The Magic Flute is a story about grief and lost love, with attempted suicides, torture and huge dilemmas. Of course it can be played for fun (which its new rhyme-infested translation begs for), but needs a consistent tone. It can be an outrageous hoot or as a fear-filled quest, but when the tone changes from scene to scene, it’s hard to know what to feel and the production becomes an expensive concert version, rather than an unmissable story.

Which leaves the music. The fun, passion and fearless bravado of Mozart’s music will continue to create opera fans for millennia to come. With conductor Adam Chalabi, Orchestra Victoria bring life to the cavernous theatre, Taryn Fiebeg’s crystal voice shone as Pamina, the three Ladies were delightful and Andrew Jones was rightly the audience favourite with his lusty earthy (and oddly Ocker) Papageno. However the men’s voices suffered from the sound-sucking nature of the State Theatre, the chorus didn’t seem that interested in being there and the Queen of The Night had a night I suspect she’d rather forget.

The Magic Flute is as much for children as anyone. If I could introduce anyone to opera, this is where I’d start. I just wish that this production would stop worrying about appealing to everyone and concentrate on the pure joy of telling this story of magic and love.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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