‘Welcome to a world where animals dance and children fly, where princes battle dragons and hope battles despair. To a world where ideas matter, and music saves the day.’ So begins the summary of Julie Taymor’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) for Opera Australia. The linguist and the cultural purist might be irritated to find it sung in English (one might perhaps suggest Australian), till one realises that Mozart’s work has found its expression in various languages. English audiences were first treated to a performance of the ‘Enchanted Flute’ in their native tongue in March 1806 in Leicester Square. Trollföjten was Ingmar Bergman’s remarkable 1974 production, adapted to screen – and sung in Swedish. In Bergman’s eyes, the Magic Flute was Mozart’s ‘most alluring and difficult opera’.
The difficulties in mounting such a production are remarkable. To realise a world of fantasy on stage, the reality can be logistically cumbersome. Extraordinary props are required. Animals take flight and hover. Gigantic temple sets are needed. Taymor negotiated these well with elaborate puppetry, though the enormous yet dexterous animals (the original 1791 performance called for lions) on stage seemed about as terrifying as the polar bear mascot of Bundaberg Rum.
The line between social commentary and charade can be a difficult one to draw, and the Magic Flute risks become child-like nonsense if not handled with care. Indeed, a review from the English paper, The Examiner dating from June 16, 1811 found the opera weak and even idiotic. All too often the critics need time to catch up.
That brings one to matters of interpretation. Masonic symbolism is redolent through the piece. Perennial contrasts are developed. To reviewer William Moritz, writing on Bergman’s effort in the Film Quarterly (Autumn, 1976), ‘cosmic principles’ are realised through such figures as the Queen of the Night and the magician Sarastro, or the Queen’s daughter Pamina and the prince, Tamino. Papageno, a creature of air, should be covered in feathers – he is, after all, a flighty ‘parrot-man’. Monostatos’s dirty countenance suggests his status as an earth-creature – one might even say earthy creature – basic in urges, lustful in design.
There was only one performance that really mattered here – carefree, silly, rule-breaking Papageno. He blabbers and his punished for it. He rebels unwittingly, but eventually wins through. Mozart, as a reward, gave him some of the finest lines. In Papageno, we see incipient sexuality, charm and control. Andrew Jones manages to create a rather nasally, provincial character, the sort of chap you might drinking in a country town bar. Not everyone’s cup of charm, but charming none the less. Tamino (Andrew Brunsdon), in his quest for love and virtue, was light and far from convincing. (Why do some singers insist on maintaining the facial expression of permanent, vacant astonishment?) The Queen (Lorina Gore), in her vengefulness, was far from sinister.
Such a production can hardly go past without comment on the costumes. Sarastro’s outfit, looking as it were like an engorged, well manicured flower, was spectacular. The ladies in the service of the Queen of the Night looked like stand-ins from a Fritz Lang special – Metropolis divas, arrows of imitation steel attached to their skin tight dresses. They also resembled mechanical beings – not so much floating as lumbering. These are minor points in Taymor’s otherwise rich realisation of one of opera’s more complicated pieces. Fortune can favour the brave.