Mozart meets the Industrial Revolution in Opera McGill’s final production of the 2012-2013 season, The Magic Flute—a joint performance with McGill’s Chamber Orchestra in Pollack Hall, presented on Mar. 21 and 23.
In the celebrated opera, Prince Tamino wanders into a distant land, and is asked by the grief-stricken Queen of Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil Sarastro. Accompanied by the bird catcher Papageno, Tamino begins a fantastical journey, in which he learns about the importance of virtue, brotherhood, and love in this allegory of the Enlightenment.
The performance of the all-student opera company is marked by strong characterization. From the sass of the Queen’s three ladies, to the playful child-spirits, the performers bring considerable enthusiasm and humour to the fairy tale opera. Ginette Grenier’s complex costume design adds a steampunk aesthetic that helps most characters stand out from the bare stage. Only the Masonic priests seem less dignified than their roles require, dressed in Victorian overalls, while the wise King Sarastro barely stands out from the rest of his priests.
Vincent Lefebvre’s set is minimalist, with a very sparse use of props. Rather, images projected onto a large screen behind the orchestra set the scene, displaying different environments as metaphors for the various characters. For example, the Queen of Night’s realm is a frigid snowscape, while Sarastro’s singing brings spring. Although the concept has potential, the execution is shaky. The images projected onto the screen are disappointingly pixelated; obviously looping videos distract from the action on stage. Additionally, the choice of imagery used to portray Sarastro’s Masonic Temple of Reason mostly consists of turning gears, grinding clockwork, and ambiguous shapes, failing to create a sense of location for much of the performance.
Opera McGill director Patrick Hansen continuously toys with the separation between the audience and the performance, with actors often singing from the centre of the auditorium. Lighting by Serge Filiatrault also plays a role in this breakdown of boundaries, as lights are projected on the sides of the auditorium in addition to the main stage. Perhaps a response to the spatial challenge of sharing the stage with the orchestra, this artistic decision keeps the audience engaged, and even amused, as when one of the three child-spirits tugs playfully at the suit of conductor Boris Brott. Having the orchestra on stage further allows the audience to become more aware of the musicians, and their role in the opera.
Under Brott’s artistic direction, McGill’s Chamber Orchestra executes the acclaimed score flawlessly, without upstaging the talented members of Opera McGill. Papageno (Geoffrey Penar) steals the show with his refreshingly comical performance, all the while executing a challenging score. Rebecca Woodmass also shines as the Queen of Night, impressing the audience with the strength of her delivery of one of the most famous arias of all time. Her thunderous portrayal of the crutch-holding Queen surrounded by bodyguards adds layers of depth to the role. Aaron Sheppard plays a gentle Tamino, and displays much chemistry with soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink’s charming Pamina.
Opera McGill’s rendition of The Magic Flute chooses to emphasize the comedic rather than the philosophical in Mozart’s masterpiece. Although the set leaves much to be desired, the talent on stage carried the performance with humour, and ultimately succeeds at creating a performance as refreshing as its ensemble.