Perceptive and Inspiring First-Nations Flute

CanadaCanada Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Vancouver Opera, Leslie Dala (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, British Columbia. 10.3.2013 (BJ)

Tamino: John Tessier
First Lady: Melody Mercredi
Second Lady: Leah Alfred
Third Lady: Marion Newman
Papageno: Joshua Hopkins
The Queen of the Night: Teiya Kasahara
First Spirit: Tiana Jung
Second Spirit: Madeleine Tan
Third Spirit: Roan Shankaruk
Pamina: Rachel Fenlon
Monostatos: Michael Barrett
The Speaker: Aaron Durand
Sarastro: Phillip Ens
Papagena: Sylvia Szadovszki
First Armed Man: Martin Sadd
Second Armed Man: Angus Bell

Director: Robert McQueen
Sets: Kevin McAllister
Costumes: Christine Reimer and John Powell
Lighting: Alan Brodie
Choreographer and Assistant Director: Michelle Olson
Chorus Director and Assistant Conductor: Kinza Tyrrell
Musical Preparation: Candy Siu and Michael Onwood

The truly great works are inexhaustible. They accommodate any number of varied interpretations (which is why no critic should ever use that death-dealing word “definitive” to describe a performance).

Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is an especially universal work, treating as it does of the eternal issues—of wisdom and truth, of the clash between darkness and light, of the meeting of male and female, of love and wisdom and truth and philosophical inquiry. So it was an absolutely valid notion on the part of Vancouver Opera, in 2007, to offer a production inspired by the culture and imagery of the First Nations (the British Columbia counterpart to the peoples the USA calls Native Americans), and its revival now six years later is welcome.

The prime begetter of the production, working with the guidance of the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, was and remains Robert McQueen. The work was sung in his English translation (which is why I have given its title in my heading in English); I must confess to slight regret over this, since the original German has so distinctive a character. But aside from a couple of places where it causes an ungainly break between words that go together, McQueen’s rhyming couplets are effective and sufficiently atmospheric in their own right.

The setting, a water-girt forest, was impressive, as were the handsome costumes, many of them featuring First Nations images and symbols. It seemed craven to shirk the representation of the dragon that threatens Tamino in the opening scene, leaving him to look out instead at its imagined location among the audience, and the final trials by fire and by water were visually a bit feeble. But the director’s and choreographer Michelle Olson’s marshaling of their forces on stage was unfailingly lucid and often highly entertaining, as at the hilarious dance when Monostatos and his crew capitulated to the charm of Papageno’s magic bells.

After the first ten minutes, then, this was a thoroughly convincing and satisfying staging. But why, oh, why, can’t directors leave overtures alone? The only conceivable function of the dizzying array of projections, mostly depicting high-rise buildings, during the overture was to distract us from the extremely fine performance of it that Leslie Dala was drawing from his orchestra. Presumably, like too many in his line of work, McQueen doesn’t trust the public to survive for so long without visual stimulation—but such devices destroy that magical feeling of mysterious anticipation that we experience in a darkened theater with the curtain firmly down and undecorated.

The quality of Dala’s leadership was happily consistent throughout the performance, with fine orchestral playing well balanced with the vocal parts, though I did find the choral sound not quite substantial enough in the work’s big moments. Most of the soloists, too, sang and acted with skill and conviction. Teiya Kasahara’s Queen of the Night was better to watch, with her beautiful and gracefully handled costume accouterments, than to listen to—the coloratura bravely but not always accurately tackled—and Michael Barrett’s Monostatos lacked power and clarity. Rachel Fenlon, the Pamina at the matinee I attended, was appearing only this one out of the six scheduled performances, and she filled the role capably.

There were telling contributions from the Three Ladies and the Three Spirits. Sylvia Szadovszki’s Papagena was adorable, as Papagenas usually seem to be. Aaron Durand was a notably firm Speaker, and Phillip Ens’s Sarastro grew in vocal stature as the afternoon progressed, though; when he was singing “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (I can’t exactly recall the English text that was used, but in keeping with the setting it was something about waters rather than halls) his body-language looked beseeching rather than suitably majestic.

Of the two male characters central to the opera’s theme of trial and purification, John Tessier was a personable and vocally solid Tamino. But it was Joshua Hopkins, as a mercurial and unwaveringly sympathetic Papageno, that emerged as the star of the show. Guiltily, I have to confess that I find it easier to identify with the Papagenos of this world than with the Taminos. Anyway, the audience—including an encouraging number of small children—clearly loved him, and indeed loved this whole perceptive and often inspiring production.

Bernard Jacobson