When the performing arm of The Melbourne Opera Studio, Gertrude Opera, presented their fully staged half-length version of The Magic Flute, I was surprisingly taken aback. Here I was in the intimate clutches of the historic Athenaeum Theatre, gobsmacked by the journey in time it swept me into. The choice of venue and the brooding, carnival-like period atmosphere tricked me into imagining I was plonked into Mozart’s midst as he himself conducted his last opera, a fairy-tale of sorts championing the forces of good over evil, reason over revenge and the just rewards of perseverance, at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, a suburban Viennese theatre where the work premiered in 1791.
Artistic director Linda Thompson achieved much with her creative team and effervescent group of predominantly young performers and guest professional artists, putting a smile of disbelief on my face as The Magic Flute entertained. Running just under 90 minutes without interval with swathes of recitative omitted, many arias reduced in length, emphasising the magical and fantastical minus the Masonic symbolism and its ceremonial choruses, the troupe performed and sang admirably and clearly to a delightful English libretto. Even the musicians were directed into the production. As patrons took their seats, the performance almost unknowingly got underway with a sense of invitation and informality as the seven musicians of the Magic Chamber Orchestra played a charming orchestral piece on the stage, appropriately a light and airy take on the opera's glorious overture. When they were done they positioned themselves in the pit and remained there for the performance, making Mozart's music emanate warmly under conductor Warwick Stengards' stewardship....clean, skilled playing was evident, especially from the honey-toned flute of Derek Jones and Pamela Christie's stealth at the piano.
In its plump simplicity, set design (simply attributed to Gertrude Opera), incorporated symmetry, height, side-stage steps and a central, hinged platform supporting four "tree" posts slung with fairy lights which illuminated when help seemed at hand or at moments of celebration. Jason Bovaird's delicious lighting design....cast a vivid palette of colour on the performance, drenching Amelia Carroll's costumes of period-inspired quirkiness, Gothic-darkness and showbiz glitter. The entire concoction presented Mozart's singspiel in a most pantomime-like manner.
The young, well-rehearsed cast, at times overcoming some stiffness in delivery, engaged with positive energy, keeping the momentum alive and earning the experience to forge stage-building dreams. Mexican tenor Juan Enrique Guzman displayed praiseworthy stamina as his expansive, warm-voiced Tamino undertook his quest with seriousness as he "played" the magic flute with impressive believability. Alexandra Ioan, pure and rich-toned as Tamino’s promised wife Pamina, gilded the stage with strong emotive phrasing. As the evil Queen of the Night, Joelene Griffith channelled her vocal strength, as if through a pipette, to slither the air with cold rage.
Playing the knock-about, happy-go-lucky bird catcher Papageno, Eugene Raggio, with an at-ease comfort, was happily awarded his prize-catch lovebird, Papagena, cheerily and squeakily brought to life by Alissa Andraski. The pair’s final duet especially tickled the funny bone as they dreamed of a life together with many "Papageni" while unfolding a concertina-cut-out of kids.Projecting with a solid appealing voice, Damien Noyce menaced with risk-taking, hyperactive acrobatics as a harlequin-like and low-life Monostatos. Guest professional artist David Gould added thunderous vocal bass and wisdom as he starred from an offstage balconette, commanding in the role of Sarastro, preacher of the way to enlightenment. Rada Tochalna, Karen Van Spall and Belinda Prakhoff swooned and paraded as the three Ladies to the Queen of the Night and invigorating the evening with multiple synchronised scooter appearances the three Spirits, Tamzyn Alexander, Alexandra Lidgerwood and Rhiannon Stevens, amused as a trio of scraggy blonde-wigged golden girls, clearly having fun while singing with heavenly-voiced lightness.
Presented here was a refreshingly entertaining kind of opera that reflects the energy and aspirations of our young crusaders on an operatic platform....in a production that impressively packages Mozart’s work for a place and time to suit many an occasion.