Mozart: The Magic Flute, February, 2017

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Doorways to the Unexpected

The Elusive Magic of Mozart's Last Opera


Somewhere at the edge of the solar system, the two Voyager spacecraft soar deeper into the unknown.

Someday, if extraterrestrials come upon one of them, they will discover a golden phonograph record of sounds, images, and music of Earth. On that record, amid the calls of birds and whales, greetings in 55 human languages, and 27 music tracks, is a single operatic selection – the Queen of the Night's hair-raising vengeance aria from Act 2 of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Should the aliens set their engineers and linguists to decode the sound waves and the language, they will hear the unearthly voice of soprano Edda Moser telling Pamina to kill Sarastro.

One wonders what they will make of the Queen's pyrotechnic rant. Will they think that all humans converse in coloratura? Will they question the wisdom of mixing with such hostile creatures?

What this single aria won't tell them is how endlessly varied the opera itself is – its story, its characters, its dizzying range of musical styles all colliding to form what Pacific Opera Victoria's Artistic Director Timothy Vernon calls an operatic Great Chain of Being.

In 1791, Emanuel Schikaneder – an impresario, librettist, producer, director, composer, actor, and theatrical jack of all trades – persuaded his pal Mozart to help him whip up a little profitable entertainment for his Theater auf der Wieden. What the pair let loose on the world is an opera that has never stopped beguiling audiences and befuddling critics. Reams of paper, gallons of ink, gigabytes of computer memory have been expended in attempts to pin down its magic.

Because Mozart and Schikaneder were both in Vienna at the time they created Flute, we have no correspondence to explain their intentions. Some operatic partnerships (Verdi and Boito, Strauss and Hofmannsthal) allow musicologists to mine letters for all kinds of insights; but when composer and librettist work via face time, a collective groan arises from the academic community. All we're left with is the work of art!

Schikaneder as PapagenoFlute seems to have started as a simple musical comedy with an exotic overlay – a Singspiel – a kind of hybrid opera in which musical numbers, often folk ballads and popular songs, are strung together with spoken dialogue. Schikaneder's troupe churned out Singspiele by the dozen, and Flute is in many ways typical.

The story draws from a dizzying variety of sources – commedia dell'arte, fairy tales, novels, operas, a dash of this, a pinch of that – it's what writer Rob Ainsley terms a derivative old rag-bag.

The libretto calls for a serpent, wild beasts, a half dozen lions, a couple of mountains, a waterfall, thunder and lighting, and other exotic touches – pyramids and palms, a splendid Javanese (or Japanese – the spelling in the original published libretto is ambiguous) hunting dress for Tamino – not to mention the mysterious and glamorous Sternflammende Königin der Nacht (star-flaming Queen of the Night).

Flute was thus a perfect vehicle to dazzle audiences with lavish sets, cutting edge special effects, fancy stage machinery, a rip-roaring plot, and hummable music. It even provided a plum role for Schikaneder, who played Papageno in the première.

And yet, as critic Spike Hughes points out,

In some way which has never been conclusively explained there came a moment in the course of the preparation of the opera when the original oriental-fairy-tale-setting of the libretto was forgotten and the whole thing developed instead into a complex allegory glorifying Freemasonry in which contemporary political trends as well as the recent Masonic history of Austria were all worked into a highly moral and heavily symbolized tale of the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil.

This unexpected gravitas opens Flute up to interpretation on many levels – as a glorification of the Masonic ideal of human brotherhood; as a political allegory about the peril in which Freemasonry found itself in Mozart's Austria; even as a roman à clef, in which Austrian empress Maria Theresa (enemy of all good Freemasons) is the Queen of the Night, with Ignaz von Born, the Master of Mozart's lodge, the model for Sarastro.

Nowadays, for many of us, The Magic Flute represents the sum total of our knowledge of Freemasonry. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries it was quite the vogue for anyone with aspirations to intelligence and sophistication to join a Masonic lodge (save for intelligent women, who were not admitted). The list of Freemasons runs to Voltaire, Haydn, Frederick the Great, Christopher Wren, Goethe, Liszt, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere – and both Mozart and Schikaneder.

Flute is seen too as a celebration of the Enlightenment, of the values of seeking wisdom, of working out what it means to be human, of learning to grow up and face the music, to face yourself and your fears.

Above all, the opera brings us Mozart's music, as varied as the libretto, as bewitching as the characters, as infused with magic as the story.

Spike Hughes again:

There is no precedent for The Magic Flute ... The peculiar magic of Mozart's last opera will begin to work, slowly, surely and unendingly as each hearing, in a miraculous and inexplicable way reveals some new detail or new aspect of the score which one somehow did not notice before.
It is in its infinite richness and variety, its inexhaustible capacity for the provision of new experience that the unique greatness of The Magic Flute lies as a work of art ... The Magic Flute is in its way the most personal of all operas in the sense that each one of us must approach it in an individual and personal way ... it is an artistic experience without parallel.

The Story

The Magic Flute starts out as a fairly standard rescue opera. Prince Tamino is saved from a dragon by three mysterious ladies. He is then enlisted by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Princess Pamina, from the evil Sarastro. Tamino falls instantly in love with Pamina's picture, and off he goes with his reluctant side-kick, the bird-catcher Papageno, armed with magical gadgets – bells and a flute – for protection.

So far, so good. Then things go sideways. It is not Tamino, but the timid Papageno who rescues Pamina – not once, but twice. Nevertheless, all three end up captured by Sarastro, who informs the two young men that they must endure a series of trials in order to gain wisdom and win their brides.

It is here that this rescue opera – not unlike that other great Singspiel, Beethoven's Fidelio – turns the tradition on its head as the woman becomes the rescuer. In the end it is Pamina who guides Tamino through the final trial of fire and water.

Those of us who bristle at the sexist remarks made by Sarastro, his minions, and even Tamino, can take some comfort in this subtly subversive turn of events. Ultimately, Pamina is the moral and emotional centre of the opera; it is she who speaks most eloquently for truth, fidelity, courage, and love.

Staging The Magic Flute

The greatest challenge of this opera is surely the question of how to encapsulate in a single production its elusive, many-faceted nature.

In his biography of the composer, Maynard Solomon observes,

Mozart is one of those rare creative beings who comes to disturb the sleep of the world. He was put on earth, it seems, not merely to provide an anodyne to sorrow and an antidote to loss, but to trouble our rest, to remind us that all is not well, that neither the center nor the perimeter can hold, that things are not what they seem to be, that masquerade and reality may well be interchangeable, that love is frail, life is transient, faith unstable ... Mozart's universe is itself uncertain, a maze of doorways to the unknown and the unexpected.

Pacific Opera Victoria's production – designed by a team who has created for Cirque du Soleil – plays with geometry and light to hint at this sense of the unexpected. The design is grounded in the shapes of pyramids that evoke its Egyptian milieu while adding a cosmic edginess.

Design illustration for the meeting of Tamino and Papageno in Act 1.  Set design: Patricia Ruel. Costume design: Laurence Mongeau.

Above: Design illustration for the meeting of Tamino and Papageno in Act 1. Set design: Patricia Ruel. Costume design: Laurence Mongeau.

As director Oriol Tomas explains,

The set consists of three modules (prisms) with mirrors on all the facets, in which the characters are constantly confronted with themselves, with their own feelings. It also gives us the impression that they are being watched by other characters, by Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. It is a game of mirrors.

Over and over, the characters in Flute experience the jolt of coming face to face with themselves, discovering the flip side of what they think they know. The prisms reflect, transmit, distort, capturing the changing moods of the opera, revealing hidden dimensions, unlooked-for perspectives.

The Magic Flute draws us down a rabbit hole into a parallel universe, full of colour and enchantment, beguiling, yet disorienting. Every staging – every performance – is an attempt to distill its essential magic – to bottle its lightning.

Maureen Woodall


 

Our Artists and Creative Team

Full Bios for Cast and Creative Team

Creative Team

Our creative team for this production is led by directorOriol Tomas, who made his professional mainstage directing debut in POV's 2010 production of Rodelinda, returning for the delightful Ariadne auf Naxos in 2014. Oriol recently won a commission to direct Henri Sauguet's Les Caprices de Marianne, which played in 16 French opera houses from 2014 to 2016 and received the 2014/15 Claude Rostand Award.

Oriol's artistic partners on Les Caprices de Marianne were Patricia Ruel and Laurence Mongeau, who are the set designer and costume designer for The Magic Flute.

Set Designer Patricia Ruel has also designed props and sets for several Cirque du Soleil productions.

Costume Designer Laurence Mongeau has designed internationally for theatre, circus, and opera, and has collaborated with Oriol on several productions.

Lighting designer Eric Champoux has designed for Cirque du Soleil, as well as some 100 productions in Quebec and Europe, including many collaborations with the acclaimed writer and director Wajdi Mouawad.

With Jacques Lemay's impressive choreography and POV Artistic Director Timothy Vernonconducting the Victoria Symphony, the production is in expert hands. Giuseppe Pietraroia, Tatiana Vassilieva, and Csinszka Rédai are bringing consummate musicianship to rehearsing the POV Chorus and coaching the young boys who play the three spirits.

Performing Artists

Simone Osborne

Soprano Simone Osborne is coming home to BC to make her POV debut as Pamina. She became an international sensation in 2008 when at 21 she was one of the youngest grand prize winners in the history of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She has played Pamina to lovelorn, lustrous perfection for Vancouver Opera and the Canadian Opera Company.

See Simone Osborne's full bio.

Sharleen Joynt

Sharleen Joynt, making her POV debut as the Queen of the Night, is an Ottawa-born coloratura soprano, who has been engaged for several seasons in German opera houses and worked as a cover with the Metropolitan Opera. In 2014, as a lark, she auditioned for The Bachelor, and, according to the Washington Post, was seen by many as injecting sophistication and authenticity into a show not usually known for either. Sharleen is also a pop culture blogger and frequent guest columnist with Flare Magazine.

See Sharleen Joynt's full bio.

Adam Luther

Making his fifth appearance with POV, tenor Adam Luther was most recently seen here as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly and Cassio in Otello, and now returns as Tamlno. He's sung the role with Edmonton and Calgary Opera. The Calgary Herald called him the picture of a prince for which any princess might sigh.

See Adam Luther's full bio.

Justin Welsh

Baritone Justin Welsh participated in POV's first Young Artist Program, in 2005, debuting in The Cunning Little Vixen. He performed the title role in The Marriage of Figaro and was praised as a charming scamp, immensely likeable and vividly expressive – exactly what we look for in the good-hearted birdcatcher Papageno.

See Justin Welsh's full bio.

Jeremy Bowes

Victoria-born Jeremy Bowes brings his resonant bass to the role of Sarastro. He completed his M.Mus. at Yale and performed for two seasons with the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden. Jeremy's most recent POV appearances were as Lodovico in Otello and Flowerdew in the 2015 school tour of Mary's Wedding.

See Jeremy Bowes' full bio.

We are thrilled to welcome debuts by Charlotte Burrage (Second Lady), Rebecca Genge (Papagena), and Kevin Myers(Monostatos).

Returning to POV are Betty Waynne Allison as First Lady (our Helena in last season's A Midsummer Night's Dream); Megan Latham as Third Lady (most recently Mistress Quickly in Falstaff); Bruce Kelly as the High Priest (Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream); and Kaden Forsberg and Andrew Erasmus in solo roles as Priests/ Armed Guards. The three spirits are Daniel Yaxley, Jack Wilson, and Cameron Little, with Pierce O'Brien, Arseni Revoy, and William Gao as their understudies.

Maureen Woodall


 

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All performances take place at the Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton Street, Victoria.