The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) at the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto. Seen on February 8, 2011. Full Cast & Creative here.
Don’t believe the papers: although this all-new staging garnered a lot of criticism for being too much like a musical and rather middle-brow, this is an unfair judgment, especially regarding the set. An aristocrat’s estate with the outdoor theatre and, for the second act, the labyrinths of the garden, actually work well for this damned-if-you-go-all-serious, damned-if-you-don’t opera. People of the manor of various ranks and their guests are seated in lawn chair and observe the comings and goings of the Act I, sometimes taking part. In Act II we follow the characters through the labyrinth — the gates, the temples, the dark corners, strangers with torches and long beards appearing from nowhere and giving the next set of directions, food carts appearing from nowhere and distracting the sidekick, and the final walk toward the fires at the centre of the maze: it all trundles along just fine and it never breaks down or gets too tedious, and that is not a small feat in the production created for all ages. (Attention, Aida cry-babies: two garden sphinx make an appearance: might these be refugees from Tim Albery’s purge last year? Since you missed them, you can go and see how they’re doing.)
Costumes are less successful. There are the usual long trains and the Goth makeup for the Queen of the Night and the multi-coloured feathers for Pappageno and Pappagena. Sarastro is camping it out with what looked like gold lamé coat and the beard of a Santa who’s down on his luck. The Three Ladies, on the other hand, the younger, de-trained versions of the Queen of the Night (plus the Harry Potter glasses) were very fetching. What Monostatos and the smaller roles sported suited them well. The only truly laughable garbs were worn by the two main characters, Tamino and Pamina, which were taken lock, stock and no irony out of gender reeducation camps of But I’m a Cheerleader. Why the director Diane Paulus didn’t blow this idea out of the water with a hearty laugh the moment (I presume) the set & costume designer Myung Hee Cho suggested it will remain a mystery.
The singing was excellent, though. It’s always a pleasure to hear Michael Schade. There’s a reason why he’s one of the busiest tenors in Europe and North America right now, and can be seen in a remarkable list of DVD recordings. Even his costume stopped being silly as soon as he started singing. He did keep a dash of humour to Tamino (the way he said “Because I am the prince” early in Act I remained the funniest thing that night), but kept him earnest and simple, then later quietly self-assured and patient, and just this side of heroic. His voice did precisely what was required in any given scene, and went for pathos in one Act II aria. (That’s the right measure of pathos for Tamino.) I wondered why the audience didn’t applaud more often after his arias: maybe because he’s always on stage and moves the opera from scene to scene seamlessly and without any fuss.
The Queen of the Night had many fans in the audience and Aline Kutan delivered the high notes at proper speed in her two arias. The colour of her voice in recitatives was also very apposite for the role. Her emissaries, The Three Ladies (Betty Waynne Allison, Wallis Giunta and Lauren Segal) were pure joy to watch and listen. They acted well and sang in clear, commanding voices. It is exciting to observe young singers beginning to own their voices and realize their charisma — crossing over to the butterfly stage before our eyes. In this case, it’s that tingly feeling multiplied by three.
Rodion Pogossov as Pappageno was the show-stealer of the night. He combined the warm-coloured voice and technical strength with the dramatic delivery that made it all look perfectly effortless. The audience went wild for his understated charm. Lisa DiMaria, gorgeous in every way a singer can be, was his perfect match.
The disappointment of the evening was Isabel Bayrakdarian, of all people. The voice — if it could have been called that on the night of February 8 — was a stream of shaky sound threatening to burst completely out of singer’s control any moment now. At first I expected it was a matter of warming up. No: it continued like that through the performance. Just about every note, except the odd middle range one, came across as a strenuous effort. Her habit to tilt her head and sing to the floor did not help either. ‘Ach ich fühl’s’ was an arduous exercise, sung forte from the beginning till the end. The capacity to shade the words and vary their meaning was not in evidence. As Bayrakdarian is my favourite recorded Romilda, need I emphasize the extent of my disappointment? A Pamina who phones it in diminishes the entire Zauberflöte.
When I came home, I needed to hear a proper Ach ich fühl’s. Lucia Popp (1983, live) and Dorothea Röschmann (2003, live) provided comfort: