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22 Apr 2011

The Magic Flute, Manitoba

It’s hard to go wrong with The Magic Flute. Mozart’s final opera contains every audience-pleasing feature in spades: beautiful music, a fairy tale story, romance, laughter, villains, heroes/heroines, and for most — a happy ending.

W. A. Mozart: The Magic Flute

Manitoba Opera, Centennial Concert Hall, April 9, 2011

 

Manitoba Opera’s production of this three-hour masterpiece offered a bonus feature: a crackerjack cast rich with talented Manitobans working their own special magic. Twelve out of 15 roles were filled by Manitoba singers.

The opera’s set, representing 1882 Egypt, was a stark multi-level structure resembling stone. Creative curtain draping, props dropping from above and a brightly lit pyramid made for efficient, if slight, scene changes.

As Tadeusz Biernacki conducted the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra through the overture, we were treated to some inventive effects — characters silhouetted high against a red sky, watching as an Anglo-Egyptian War battle raged below making explosions of light. Bill Williams’ lighting introduced the story before a single note was sung.

We first see American lyric tenor Bruce Sledge (Tamino), struggling to escape a huge, Chinese dragon-like serpent, with billowy cloth body, gigantic googly-eyed head with fangs. He was saved by three hilariously preening ladies, played to the hilt by sopranos Sarah Halmarson and Naomi Forman and smoky-voiced mezzo Marcia Whitehead. Coiffed in multi-coloured streaks, they fawned competitively over the collapsed Tamino, making clever (and suggestive) choreographic use of the crooked poles they carried.

Sledge has a true hero’s voice and demeanour. In “Dies Bildnis ist bezaurbernd schön,” he poured his heart into his singing, flowing phrases imbued with passion. He also did a mean representation of flute-playing, making it quite believable.

One of opera’s all-time favourite characters, bird-catcher Papageno was played by baritone Hugh Russell. Dressed in feathers and rags, he was delightfully animated, his easy, pleasing voice setting just the right tone for this amiable role. Russell is the ideal Papageno, with great comic ability and superb timing.

While the opera was sung in German, all dialogue (by Schikaneder) was in English, so the audience could laugh along with Papageno when he spouted such gems as “all this stress is making me moult out of season” and claimed that the wine was giving him “acid reflux.” Director Michael Cavanagh went to town with the dialogue, giving us plenty of chuckles.

Magic-Flute_Manitoba.gifPhillip Ens (Sarastro), Bruce Sledge (Tamino), and Andriana Chuchman (Pamina). [Photo: R. Tinker]

Papageno’s better half, Papagena, was the delightful Lara Ciekewicz. She was positively bubbly in this small role. Their “Pa-pa-pa-gena! Pa-pa-pageno!” was lively and adorable.

Speaking of adorable, who couldn’t love the three genii with their bushy white hair and angelic voices? Bravo to Carson Milberg, Anton Dahl Sokalski and Torbjörn Thomson.

As the infamous Queen of the Night, American coloratura Julia Kogan made quite the entrance, floating down from the sky on a fantastical winged camel. Dressed in a magnificent gown, she was ghostly pale — but her fine voice was anything but. Assertive and commanding, she ordered Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina. But in later scenes, Kogan’s dialogue was almost inaudible upstage. She made a valiant effort in the devilishly difficult “Der Höle Rachekocht in meinem Herzen,” reaching for the highest notes with obvious exertion.

Winnipeg soprano Andriana Chuchman’s Pamina was radiantly princess-like, with an appealing dose of youthful exuberance. Chuchman is a natural performer, with a mature, substantial voice that carries exceedingly well. The famous lament, “Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden” was masterfully crafted, round notes oozing heartbreak.

Phillip Ens’ resonant bass made the ultimate High Priest Sarastro, steady and noble. The depth and pomp of his performance made every hair stand on end. His regal robes were elegant and refined.

His slave Monostatos, played by the athletic Michel Corbeil, appeared tattooed from the top of his bald head to his toes. His flexible tenor voice sneered through his lines, making him the villain we loved to hate.

Gregory Atkinson was perfectly cast as an authority figure (High Priest), his deep voice richly resplendent. PJ Buchan’s (Priest) glorious tenor voice sounds better on every outing.

The chorus rounded out the production nicely, always well balanced and supportive. Kudos go to the orchestra, in particular for the many solos by flute and glockenspiel. There would be no Magic Flute without them.

This was a first-rate production in every way.

Gwenda Nemerofsky

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