There are fun and frolics aplenty in Julie Taymor’s vivid and vibrant interpretation.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
January 3, 2015

This is the third time Opera Australia have staged Julie Taymor’s interpretation of Mozart’s masonic masterpiece (directed this time by Matthew Barclay) since it first graced the stage of the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre in 2012. This speaks volumes about the charisma, charm and accessibility that this production, created in 2005 for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, offers in spades.

Vocally Opera Australia has assembled a skilled cast featuring a great deal of home-grown talent, with only Scottish tenor John Longmuir in the role of Tamino born outside Australia (although he has made his home and career down-under for many years). Longmuir’s robust yet agile singing is sensitively paired with Taryn Fiebig’s sweet soprano in the role of Pamina. Both have a buoyant and crisp tone that is ideal for Mozart although Fiebig occasionally reveals some slight fragility at the higher end of her range. Sian Pendry, Dominica Matthews and Jane Ede’s Three Ladies were also perfectly matched, and despite the troublesome wordiness of these roles, their diction and intonation were superb. Kanen Breen did what he could with Monostatos, a role that sits in a rather unflattering range of any tenor’s voice, although his suitably pantomimey antics made his rendition very watchable nonetheless.

Emma Matthews as Queen of the Night. (photo: Prudence Upton)

At the far ends of Mozart’s musical palette were Daniel Sumegi as Sarastro and Emma Matthews as Queen of the Night – very apt casting given their senior status within the Australian operatic community. Vocally both effortlessly delivered: Sumegi’s elemental bass was rich and resonant without compromising on diction and Matthews’ ferocious coloratura passages, including that aria in the second act, were agile and thrilling. It is a shame then that both have to contend with some very unforgiving, bulky costumes that act as a straightjacket on their performance. This is especially true for Matthews who has to compete with a bizarre collection of silken flags that whip and shudder around her. These only detracted and inhibited her delivery, as well as causing an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction on opening night when one of these sails became accidently wrapped around her face. This prompted some awkward titters from the audience and undermined the drama of the death threats to Pamina during this famous second act aria.

The stand out star of the production is undoubtedly Samuel Dundas as Papageno. In addition to the wonderful quality of Dundas’ muscular baritone, his dynamic and expertly acted portrayal of the bumbling bird-catcher was charming, endearing and generally as good a display of this character as I’ve seen. By the huge ovation he received during the curtain call, it was clear I wasn’t the only one in the audience who thought so.

The flamboyant design of this production makes reference to several ancient civilizations. Nods to Japanese, Egyptian, Greek and Aztec aesthetics are mixed together alongside masonic iconography and a sort of B-movie sci-fi vibe that highlights the other-worldliness of Mozart’s peculiar narrative. Julie Taymor’s most lauded achievement is her award winning staging of Disney’s Lion King musical, so it’s no wonder that this sensitively pruned version of The Magic Flute, which in this abridged edition reduces the running time by about a third, maintains an exciting momentum throughout.

Taymor has employed many of the stage tricks used to great effect in her Lion King production, and despite the perennial issue of the Sydney Opera House’s diminutive stage, the use of puppetry, dancers and an ingenious (if slightly noisy), rotating crystal cube set creates a rich and vibrant universe for the characters to explore. Particularly pleasing is Taymor’s handling of the three spirits, whose various forms of avian transport make for some truly magical viewing.

Samuel Dundas as Papageno (Photo: Prudence Upton)

Purists may be disappointed that the overture is shaved down to just three chords before the narrative launches full tilt into the serpent attack, but the omission of some of the more superfluous masonic waffle ensures that the production feels fleet and nimble.

This athletic pace does however provide some challenges. Character development is kept as succinct and, dare I say superficial as possible, and while this allows for a lot of punchy humour, mainly centred on Papageno and Monostatos, the more complex relationship between Tamino and Pamina, or Sarastro and Queen of the Night is given little oxygen. This is mirrored in Taymor’s elaborate staging, which reserves all the most breathtaking theatrical effects for Papageno (a magical flying feast, and a chorus-line of ballet dancing flamingos get a special mention), with Tamino and Pamina’s trials by fire and water becoming a bit of a damp squib. The banishment of Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies from Sarastro’s temple is also disappointingly underwhelming, especially given the level of innovation used elsewhere in the show.

The result is that the focus of the narrative becomes almost entirely about comedy. J.D. McClathy’s sometimes awkwardly corny translation is conspicuously skewed towards a more comedic dialogue, and while this does deliver some delightful moments for the buffa characters, it means the challenges facing the two lovers take a back seat to the gags. By the end, do we even care if Tamino and Pamina make it safely through the trials, when Papageno’s hunt for his Papagena is so much more entertaining?

Taymor’s vision for The Magic Flute is chock full of fun and frolics, and its bold, bright design cannot help but leave the audience with a smile. It’s friendly, accessible approach makes it a dead cert crowd-pleaser, but this opera is more than just a farce. There are moments of despair, anguish, anger and danger that play as vital a role in communicating the narrative as the antics of the comedy characters. Arguably this is a challenge that faces any director tackling this opera: while there are laughs a plenty to be wrought, anything deeper than mere clowning around is harder to find.

Buy a Limelight subscription as a gift