The Magic Flute: The Canadian Opera Company with Ashlie Corcoran (director), Bernard Labadie (conductor). At at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Runs until February 29.
The Canadian Opera Company’s winter season opened last evening with a revival of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in a production first seen in 2011. It’s been the tradition of the Company to make sure that one of the two shows is sufficiently light and frothy to help lift the spirit of the winter-weary Torontonians. The COC couldn’t have found a better choice than the Diane Paulus production (here directed by revival director Ashlie Corcoran) that wowed audience and critics last time. It has lost none of its freshness and charm, thanks to an excellent cast, beautiful set and costumes, and the knowing baton of a highly experienced Mozartian, the debuting Quebec maestro Bernard Labadie. His conducting had the requisite lightness of touch, and with relatively brisk tempo, the long opera came in at just under three hours with a 25-minute intermission.
The novelty of this production is the re-imagining of the opera as a performance, a variation of the age-old dramatic device of a play within a play. The success of this plot twist depends on its execution. In this case, it’s done deftly. A few days ago in an interview, I asked baritone Joshua Hopkins for his thoughts. Here’s what he had to say: “I, Papageno, is the head servant or head gardener of the property. Sarastro owns the house, and the show is being presented as a birthday gift to his daughter, who plays Pamina. The relationships are established in the overture who everyone is. It’s an opera within an opera. I like playing up the fact that I am a servant playing Papageno, but I’m also living Papageno’s journey.”
The idea of turning the story into a make-belief play — in this case, an opera — has the effect of removing the inherent heaviness of the story. The prominent Masonic symbolism is much reduced. No changes were made to the text, so the deep philosophical discourse of light/darkness and good/evil remain. The presence of an audience on stage, in the form of members and guests of the Sarastro household, lends quasi-realism to the proceedings. What we ended up with is a light-hearted, charming, whimsical romp, a perfect winter tonic for January. This is an opera that I have seen several dozen times over my 50 years (to the month!) of attending live operas. If truth be told, one becomes a bit jaded after having seen it for the nth time. But this sparkling, warm-hearted production and superb musical values made me fall in love with the piece all over again.
A lot of the credit goes to the marvelous cast. As Tamino, Canadian Andrew Haji has the perfect Mozart tenor — bright yet warm, mellifluous yet ringing, used with grace and all the requisite legato lines. Although slightly under the weather, I didn’t detect any problems, his “Dies Bildnis” totally engaging. He moves exceptionally well for a big guy. The Pamina was Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova, a voice I am familiar with from my annual visits to the Bavarian State Opera, having heard her Nannetta, Zerlina and most recently Mélisande. Her lyric soprano is rich, ringing, beautifully focused. It’s also a very big voice for the typical Pamina, almost too big when she lets it rip on occasion. One would have liked just a little more dynamic contrast in the otherwise very lovely “Ach, ich fühl’s.”
Top vocal and dramatic honours went to the Papageno of Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, who fully embodied the Bird-catcher. Funny, endearing, good-natured, mischievous are just a few adjectives to describe his acting. Combine that with a smooth, warm, exceptionally beautiful lyric baritone, and you have a real winner. At 38, it’s an age when some baritones contemplate retiring the Bird-catcher and move to the more heavy-duty roles, but judging by Hopkins’s performance, his Papageno has plenty of miles left before the warranty runs out. While Croatian bass Goran Juric isn’t quite a basso profondo a la Matti Salminen, he sang a fine Sarastro. German baritone Matin Gantner made a welcome return to the COC as a dignified Sprecher.
Canadian dramatic coloratura Ambur Braid repeated the excellent Queen of the Night she sang in the Ensemble performance in 2011. Hers is a flamboyant, silent-movie style Queen, with all the vocal chops and the hi-camp qualities needed to make the Queen the center of attention. She earned huge ovations from the audience. Canadian character tenor Michael Colvin was the best Monostatos I’ve seen. Incidentally, his black leather costume and no hint of any dark makeup took away any criticism of the inherent racism of how Mozart portrayed this character. However, the misogynous texts remained. The Three Ladies (Aviva Fortunata, Emily D’Angelo, and Lauren Segal) not only sounded good but were genuinely funny. Soprano Jacqueline Woodley reprised her excellent Papagena of six years ago. The Three Spirits (Sophie Filip-Vicari, Ella Farlinger, Clara Moir) from the CCOC were delightful, their trebles blending beautifully.
The lovely production is realistic, with the animals a touch cartoony and whimsical. There are plenty of clever directorial touches to hold the audience interest. When I see this opera in German houses, I sometimes feel like I’m in a church. But not this production! There are plenty of truly funny moments, rightfully drawing laughter from the audience. The characters are meticulously drawn. The realistic costumes are meant to reflect Mozart’s time, rather than some mythical or indeterminate period, in effect bringing the story down to a human level. The Finale has the bad guys and gals — Queen of the Night, her Three Ladies, and Monostatos joining in the festivities. This is a trend in recent years which I’ve always found problematic, but given this is a make-belief performance anyway, it makes sense.
If I were to quibble — fans of literal realism would not be pleased with the staging of the trials by fire and water. The fire was represented by dancers with shimmering red costumes waving their arms to simulate dancing flames. Umbrella-like structures with cascading, long strands of silvery-white ribbons carried by supernumeraries simulated torrents of water. No, I am afraid it was lame. I confess that after more than thirty years, I still have vivid memories of the August Everding production of Die Zauberflöte in Munich, where the trials by fire and water had real fire and real water! Not to mention the Three Spirits coming in on a hot air balloon! O well, you can’t have everything.
There you have it — a delightful evening in the opera house. I fully plan to revisit on January 29 to see the alternate cast. My advice? Don’t miss this show!