When Papageno, the naïve and loveable bird catcher, sees the pretty Papagena who is to become his wife, he exclaims a loud and gleeful WOW. That is what tenor Gordon Bintner does in the current production of The Magic Flute presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.
WOW is the most precise and laudable review one can give to a performance. There is a problem with using that word as the definitive and only description. No, not for the performers but for the critics who would join the unemployment line and the papers that may have to deal with blank pages. Fortunately for reviewers and unfortunately for performers, WOW is rarely used as a definitive judgment of a production. Alas, the same applies to this production of Mozart’s sixteenth opera. It has some virtues but for some reason it simple fails to grab us.
This is a revival of the COC’s 2011 production of The Magic Flute which was originally directed by Diane Paulus. The same production was staged in 2017 and is currently revived by Anna Theodosakis.
Paulus presents the opera as a play-within-a-play. In a program note she states that “The entire play-within-a-play is presented in the open space of a nobleman’s garden, itself a place of enchantment and symbolic power during this historical period.” The story is enacted in an elaborate labyrinth of hedges on the grounds of the estate. It is a good idea and a fine place to enact a fairy tale.
Set and costume designer Myung Hee Cho handles numerous scene changes from gardens, to mountains, to groves, to Temple of Wisdom astutely and economically with lighting changes and moveable hedges.
I should declare my view of the opera. It was first produced in 1791 in the Theatre auf der Wieden, outside of Vienna and its censors. The libretto was by Emanuel Schikaneder, a man of the popular theatre. He was interested in making money and not producing high art. The Magic Flute is a Singspiel, a play with songs or simply a popular musical. It may have some of Mozart’s best music and contains some highfalutin ideas about wisdom, goodness, bravery and some other virtues practiced by Masons. That sounds heavy-handed but it is not because the music and beautiful songs do not allow it to become anything but wonderful and there is hilarious comedy to carry you to the triumphal end.
Diane Paulus’s production does not fully succeed as such. When Papageno yells WOW at the sight of Papagena he gets a big laugh but Paulus does not take advantage of the many opportunities for comedy in the opera. Papageno’s attempt at suicide, should have the audience roaring with laughter. Here it produced a little more than polite enjoyment. No fault of Bintner who needed better direction to be hilarious.
The quality of the singing had some inevitable variations but it was overall very sound. Caroline Wettergreen gets high marks for surviving the tortuous Aria of the Queen of the Night. Yes, that’s the one that has a two-octave range and she expels those high Fs as if they were poisoned arrows. But go past that and look at her daughter Pamina’s reactions as the Queen demands that she kill her father and, far worse, the vile and malevolent curses that she spouts if she fails to do so. Wettergreen deserves to be judged with the power of her performance and not just the high notes. She is brilliant overall.
She contrasts beautifully with her estranged husband Sarastro sung by bass David Leigh.
Dressed in gold, he is the epitome of wisdom and rectitude. He sings “O Isis und Osiris” and “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” with steady resonance and sonority and we enjoy every note of them.
Our hero Tamino was in the hands and vocal chords of tenor Ilker Arcay?rek while the heroine Pamina is assigned Anna-Sophie Neher. They both have lovely voices and we share in their “suffering” as they are sorely tried as they progress through the hardships on their way to the Temple of Wisdom which I translate to be as a happy marriage and a happy life.
The COC Orchestra and Chorus shone under the baton of Patrick Lange.
The problem was that on the day I saw it, the performance seemed to be weighed down and did not engage the audience. The curtain calls’ reactions ranged from polite to positive was with some nuggets of enthusiasm.
As I said, Papageno’s WOW got one of the biggest laughs. How I wish I could have reviewed the entire production with that one word.
The Magic Flute by W. A. Mozart (music) and Emanuel Schikaneder (libretto) is being performed seven times from May 6 to 21, 2022 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West Toronto. www.coc.ca