By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, March 9. Continues on March 12, 14, 16, and 17
At The Gathering, the cutting-edge Vancouver International Dance Festival’s weekend colloquium on matters artistic, “the opera” was cited by many participants as an example of elitist, high-European culture, a played-out force long overdue to be swept away by the kind of pluralism that more accurately represents Canada’s changing demographics.
So what does it mean when this country’s cultural elite embraces the art of one of its most marginalized populations, as Vancouver Opera did in its 2007 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute? Featuring imagery, set design, and costumes inspired by the longhouse culture of the Pacific Northwest, and further skewed toward a First Nations sensibility by a libretto that replaces Mozart’s God with a less Christian-specific “Creator”, director Robert McQueen’s interpretation is at once cheering and contentious.
There’s no denying that the First Nations elements are handled sensitively, as they should be: the production was mentored by 18 aboriginal advisors, including playwright Margo Kane and composer Russell Wallace. But the ironic coincidence that Mozart was writing his Masonic opera not long after Captain James Cook sailed into Nootka Sound in 1778 is only alluded to. Here, Tamino, a prince dressed in European clothes, is washed up on the shore of a kingdom ruled by the chiefly Sarastro; it’s a clever conceit. Less well thought through is that in this new context Tamino’s wooing of the lovely Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter, bears a strange resemblance to John Smith’s courtship of the First Nations princess Pocahontas—a settler’s fable that has recently been unmasked as more of a colonial myth than an intercultural reality.
Social historians and semioticians could have a field day with the inner meanings that underpin this curious amalgamation of homage, exchange, and appropriation. But how does this remount, slightly amended from the original, play out on-stage?
Well, this is no doubt an exceptionally handsome production. The Magic Flute lends itself to outsize glamour: it’s rife with pomp, ritual, magic, and thunderstorms. Here, though, instead of the expected gold and scarlet of a European court, the dominant tones are ocean blue and forest green. Rocky outcrops on a long sand beach support some scenes; others are set on the floor of a cedar forest, its towering trunks aptly suggested by hanging panels of cleverly painted cloth. Footage of breaking waves lulls the viewer into a stage of suspended disbelief so effective that by the time the action shifts to Sarastro’s longhouse, we’re there, smelling the smoke and the salmon.
As spectacle, it’s immaculate. As music, under the direction of conductor Leslie Dala, it’s impeccably played. Unfortunately, on opening night these strengths were spoiled by weak performances from soprano Teiya Kasahara, as the Queen of the Night, and bass Phillip Ens, as Sarastro. The former’s Minnie Mouse squeaks on the aria “Tremble not, my dear son” were disconcerting; the latter had persistent pitch issues, especially during the first half of the second act.
Let’s get things straight: neither were terrible. Neither, though, had much to work with from the theatrical standpoint: Sarastro is a cipher, and the Queen of the Night is little more than a vehicle for her admittedly gorgeous Luna-moth costume—a problem, by the way, that doesn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of this production. Mozart was more interested in both characters as containers for his melodic brilliance than as the archetypes made flesh they so clearly long to be.
The more human figures fare better. Baritone Joshua Hopkins, as the fluttering, clownish Papageno, brings real pathos to this bird-catching buffoon, and effectively illustrates his struggle to find an inner nobility despite his anxious, chattering nature. Tenor John Tessier is an effective, if unspectacular, singer but has real acting gifts; his Tamino is a fit protagonist for what McQueen, in his program notes, describes as a classic hero’s journey. As Pamina, Simone Osborne also has to deal with an underwritten role—she’s not so much a heroine as an object of contention—but the soprano delivers this show’s most virtuosic and emotional singing, especially during her heart-wrenching, lovelorn contemplation of suicide.
Judging by the lack of the typical opening-night standing O, many viewers left this Magic Flute feeling as conflicted as I did: entertained, yes, but perhaps unconvinced.