The heyday of the opera film – a film made of an opera to be shown in cinemas, and not necessarily filmed in a theatre – occurred in the final three decades of the twentieth century. Films emerged with regularity, often from well-known opera directors such as Franco Zeffirelli, Jean-Pierre Ponelle, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and others. However, the advent of live opera HD broadcasts early in the twenty-first century, pioneered and still dominated by the New York Metropolitan Opera, in many ways put paid to this genre, and as the technology of live and recorded performances improved exponentially, a film of an opera became increasingly rare.
A film version of The Magic Flute appearing in 2022 was greeted with much interest. Directed by Florian Sigl, this is a curious mixture of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Dead Poets Society. The central figure is a seventeen-year-old aspiring singer, Tim Walker, who arrives at the fictitious ‘Mozart International School’ in Austria and passes through a magic portal into the world of the Mozart opera. He meets Pamina and the other characters and undergoes various trials as a Tamino surrogate, finally emerging at the end enriched by his experiences. Unfortunately, there is not much of the actual Magic Flute music in the film, and the singing is unimpressive.
This contrasts with an earlier film of the opera, directed by Kenneth Branagh in 2006, which includes almost all of the original music and features some fine singers, including the great German bass René Pape, as Sarastro. Branagh sets the film in the trenches of World War I. Implausible as this may sound, the film is both a visual and musical delight. Branagh’s undoubted skill as a director and lover of the opera, using an excellent English translation by Stephen Fry, emerges in a poignant and deeply felt exploration of the kaleidoscopic changes of mood and atmosphere of the work, using the unlikely location with taste, imagination, and flair – the Queen of the Night even arrives on a tank!
Preceding these two films is Ingmar Bergman’s magisterial film version, staged in a recreation of the exquisite baroque theatre at Drottningholm near Stockholm. Shown on Swedish TV on 1 January 1975, the images of the camera – frequently lingering on the absorbed and expressive face of a young girl (Bergman’s own daughter) watching the opera – have become iconic. Bergman, making it plain this is a stage performance, delights in all the fascinating authentic paraphernalia of a late eighteenth-century theatre. There are amusing glimpses of backstage activities; we eavesdrop on Sarastro studying a score of Parsifal in his dressing room, while the Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies blithely sit smoking under a No Smoking sign. Many still regard it as the greatest opera film of all; it has lost none of its freshness in the subsequent fifty years.
The Magic Flute is a work that has possibly inspired the widest range of directorial approaches of any opera. It has been the most performed opera of the past three years worldwide, and for the last twenty years has always been in the top five. Opera Australia, and its predecessors, have a long history with the opera, dating back to 1955. A John Copley production, conducted by Charles Mackerras, was part of the program in 1973 for the opening of the Sydney Opera House.
The 1986 production by Göran Järvefelt, conducted by Richard Bonynge, starred the Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård as Papageno, a role he had so memorably performed in the Bergman film. Julie Taymor’s 2004 fairy-tale production for the Metropolitan Opera, staged at the Sydney Opera House in 2012, was greeted with general acclaim. Taymor compared the work to being like Shakespeare: ‘It’s like an elevator you can get off on any level. You can enjoy it for the basic magical fairy-tale outline, or you can sit there and ponder the deeper thoughts behind it.’
E.T.A Hoffmann wrote of Mozart in 1821: ‘Fiery imagination, deeply felt humour, and extravagant abundance of ideas pointed this Shakespeare of music in the direction he had to follow.’ Yet there are troubling aspects surrounding the libretto for the Flute, including issues of race, misogyny, and gender relationships, which many contemporary productions attempt surreptitiously to elide or else completely ignore. Often the language of the original German is deliberately mistranslated or just ignored in the surtitles. These concerns are a deeply problematic area of contemporary operatic production in general, and have engendered much soul searching.
Opera Australia’s new production by Kate Gaul, using an English translation by Gaul and Michael Gow, takes a somewhat different path to more traditional productions. The action occurs on a set designed by Michael Yeargan for a production of Werther in 1989 – essentially the repurposing of a large room with a sloping entrance from upstage, in which a curtain is slung across the stage at various times to create two separate playing areas. If one is looking for the magical stage effects that are used in many productions of the opera, one might be disappointed as this low-key, laid-back version avoids dazzle, and is focused on other aspects of the opera: celebrating a sense of shared humanity in the face of life’s trials on a journey towards the ideals of enlightenment; focused on happiness, tolerance of difference, and respect for knowledge and truth. Like many contemporary productions, it ignores the more controversial aspects of the original version.
The opera is essentially a conflict between light and darkness embodied in the figures of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night (who are husband and wife in this production), but the journey here ends in a sense of joyous reconciliation rather than banishment. The colourful and effective costumes by Anna Cordingley suggest everyday life – contemporary street clothes, with only fleeting glimpses of bling and glitter; these are ordinary folk going about their business. The production’s design and performance focus is on a world which is under threat from natural forces over which we have little control but ignore at our peril. It ends with a sense of hope as all gather for the finale dressed in vivid beach apparel.
Heading the cast was the delightful Pamina of Stacey Alleaume who is carving out an impressive career in a wide variety of roles in Australia and abroad. She has an alluring stage presence with a beautiful, limpid voice of impressive projection and substance. Tamino, her partner through the various trials they undergo, was Michael Smallwood. He also has an engaging stage persona and an attractive, flexible tenor voice, encompassing the challenges of this role with aplomb, if occasionally lacking some of the heroic tone that the role demands. Accompanying him on his journey was the knockabout, vividly ocker Papageno of Ben Mingay. Toting his ever-present Esky filled with a range of beverages, he displayed a rich baritone with impeccable diction, and made the most of the humour and warm-hearted and fallible humanity of the role.
On the side of light was the Sarastro of David Parkin, a stalwart of Opera Australia. He has a strong and commanding stage presence and a bass voice with the necessary gravitas. A well-modulated speaking voice, the low-lying extremes of the role perhaps needed a little more substance, but he dominated the stage when necessary, wearing a flamboyant costume and impressive wig. Giuseppina Grech, as the Queen of the Night, at first dressed in a nondescript black fur coat, started a little hesitantly in her Act One aria, the voice not quite soaring through the extensive fioritura, but came into her own in the great second act aria, knocking out the high Fs with more confidence and substance, and now attired in a suitably glittering dress.
The three Ladies (Jane Ede, Indyana Schneider, and Ruth Strutt) were excellent. They captured the humour of these flighty figures, and their ensembles with Tamino and Papageno were full of humanity and fun. Jennifer Black was a sparkling Papageno, while Kanen Breen effectively embodied the malevolence and frustrations of Monastatos, this deeply troubling figure. Gregory Brown and Nathan Lay were suitably sonorous and commanding as the two-armed men and the two priests. The spirits (Elijah Alkhair, Estelle Gilmovich. Abbey Hammond, Zev Mann, Thomas Prowse, and James Valanidas) were confident and sympathetic guides to Pamina and Papageno.
Teresa Riveiro Böhm conducted the Opera Australia Orchestra with clarity and an impressive sense of style, at all times achieving excellent coordination between pit and stage. The chorus, as always, provided wide tonal variety and confidently embodied the variety of figures and situations on the stage.
The myths surrounding the opera – Mozart was to die a few months after the première in September, 1791 – have all contributed to the opera’s aura. His letters to his wife during the first run of performances suggest that he was very happy with how it was going; delighted that his seven-year-old son, Karl, enjoyed the opera, while Mozart’s own enjoyment is palpable in a letter:
During Papageno’s aria with the glockenspiel I went behind the scenes, as I felt a sort of impulse today to play it myself. Well, just for fun, at the point where Schikaneder has a pause, I played an arpeggio. He was startled, looked behind the wings and saw me. When he had his next pause, I played no arpeggio. This time he stopped and refused to go on. I guessed what he was thinking and again played a chord. He then struck the glockenspiel and said ‘Shut up.’ Whereupon everyone laughed.
Mozart, of course, was deeply aware of the profound nature of the work as well as its humour. Both aspects of the opera emerged in Gaul’s production, and the excellent cast and musicians have served Mozart well.
The Magic Flute (Opera Australia) continues at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 16 March 2024. Performance attended: 1 February.