I went with some friends to see The Magic Flute at the Mayfair Theatre last night. Let me say firstly that I was greatly impressed for reasons I'll detail in due course. There were also some quibbles, which I'll discuss as I come to them. However the being impressed far outweighed the quibbles.
John Drummond produced the piece in a 'renovated' version. This meant that some of the lyrics were altered to a more 21st century language, and were aligned to the idea of cellphones and iPads. The only problem with that is when you try and include a 21st century birdcatcher you immediately run into problems. Papageno came in on a bike, which was fun, but...birdcatchers don't really figure greatly in the 21st century corporate world.
Still, there was lots of busyness from the three ladies (now corporate-besuited PAs) and the Queen of the Night (or CEO) to distract from such difficulties. There was some fiddling around with the structure of the plot: the Queen appeared at the very beginning rather than later, as did Monostatos (a security officer, again besuited, though with hair that stood on end as though he'd been electrocuted -and no darkened face. Too PC for that these days.) Some of the dialogue was strongly 21st century which suited the overall tone - though was it really necessary for the Queen of the Night to use a four-letter word?
If you didn't know the story, or couldn't remember what happens, you wouldn't know that normally Tamino is chased on by a Serpent. No Serpent here, though the three ladies did some rather odd swordplay as a substitute. And equally, in the second half, if you weren't familiar with things, you'd wonder what on earth Tamino and Pamina were up to when they were going through their trials, which, quite honestly, wouldn't have caused much of a flutter to any 21st century person of self-esteem.
So much for the minor quibbles.
Only one major quibble, and this was a matter of casting. The 19-year-old who played Sarastro, Robert Lindsay, will have a good bass voice in time, but it was an awfully big ask to cast him in a part that requires an utterly rich bass sound, one that shocks us with its authority. I heard that he'd been subbed in when someone else couldn't play the part. Be that as it may, surely in the whole of Dunedin there is a bass singer with some gravitas who could have done this role. Why are Opera Otago's productions now being cast almost entirely with University students? Dunedin has plenty of good singers and actors. Don't they get a chance to audition for these productions?
Okay, I think that's the quibbles. Better to get them out of my hair.
Here are the things that impressed: (non-University student) James Adams as Tamino. What a great voice this man has, and he can act as well. He was in Anthony Ritchie's This Other Eden back in 2014, and gave a great performance there. Here he did Mozart justice at every point. I was keen to see James perform, because he was in Opera Alive for two or three years; it was a group I was musical director for, for around seven years.
Tyler Neumann (whom I saw at a Jonathan Lemalu masterclass last year, and who didn't then seem to have the strength for an opera) gave a delightful performance as Papageno: good singing, good comedy and sheer enjoyment in everything he did.
Ingrid Fomison-Nurse played the Queen of the Night. This role doesn't usually require a lot of acting: it's the singing we're focused on. This young lady didn't disappoint. Those wonderful notes that sit high above the stave were all there, and in general she did an admirable job, even if a few notes were missing from the runs.
Her three Ladies had a good deal more to do in this version than I remember from previous productions; that was fine: Julia Moss-Pearson, Beth Goulstone and Claire Barton (another former Opera Alive participant) were all in fine voice and sang Mozart's wonderful harmonies superbly. Mentioning Opera Alive reminds me that Claire, who is short, sang a song in one of the OA shows alongside the tallest Opera Alive member we'd ever had. He was a singer from one of the Pacific Island countries, and I can't remember his name any more, but the lovely contrast of tall and short went over very well with the audience.
The other two soprano roles, Pamina and Papagena (here called Poppy Gainer, for some reason - there was a bit of inconsistency in renaming the characters) both did great jobs with their singing. From the point of view of the quality of singing this cast certainly shows that singing training at the University Music School is up with the best. Both the ladies gave good lively performances too.
There was no chorus, so three young men had to deal with all the work usually done by a larger number. That was a pity, because the male chorus music in this opera is beautiful. Why couldn't a chorus be found for the production? Choruses are an essential part of opera.
The three 'boys' were played by three girls, which was fine, as the blend of voices works just as well. The ensemble writing in The Magic Flute is consistently interesting musically, and it was a delight to hear it performed so well from all the cast.
The set design. Well, this was a bit of a curiosity. A kind of lattice hung down from the flies in the centre of the stage. It was well lit, but it meant that anyone standing behind it, or just underneath it, wasn't nearly so well lit. The remainder of the scenery consisted of a platform with steps leading off down the front, and a ramp leading off on either side. Extra work for the singers getting up and down these, as they did continually during the night. Yes, it gives variety of ways to place your singers, but it also means that audience really wonders, in their heart of hearts, why the singers so often go racing up the steps and then down a ramp, when it was far easier to just walk around the construction. Yes, I know, far too fussy.
There was also a large screen at the back on which black and white and somewhat fuzzy photographs were projected. These seemed to bear no relation to the story or the settings. I guess whoever designed this aspect knew what they were on about. However it wasn't clear to the audience - or at least this part of the audience, or the people I was with.
Costuming had its points: both Papageno and Tamino were intriguingly dressed, one in overalls and the other in hiking gear. But as the evening wore on the colour in the costumes became increasingly dull: Pamina wound up in something that was reminiscent of an army green, and Papagena/Poppy wasn't very bright for a character who's origin is birdlike. The members of Sarastro's community were dressed in long robes, but there was little decoration.
Well, you can't have everything, I suppose. The singing (and orchestra playing - from a smaller number of musicians than Mozart wrote for) was excellent. Mozart's music continues to shine - you even come out of the theatre humming the tunes. Those things in themselves are of great value.