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The Magic Flute

Also published in The Rover.

You can’t have opera without ridiculous plot devices, and the older the opera the worse they get. But modern audiences are used to comprehensible plots and characters that aren’t allegories, so we turn our attention to the singing or fall asleep (Mister Parterre W38). Opéra de Montréal presents The Magic Flute, and the singing is very fine.

Mozart’s penultimate operatic work, The Magic Flute combined elements of serious and comic forms while this was still relatively rare. Its serious aspect, an allusion to Freemasonry, has not aged well. Prince Tamino and birdcatcher Papageno find their true loves (conveniently named Pamina and Papagena and selected by higher, paternal powers) through gravely intoned but fuzzy tests, mostly by stumbling on from the wings singing, “Where am I now?” The Magic Flute requires unusual indulgence from a modern audience. Happily, it rewards us with some of Mozart’s finest arias.

The best known is “Der Hölle Rache” sung by The Queen of the Night, which gave the usually wonderful Aline Kutan a rough time. In compensation we had Aaron St. Clair Nicholson sing Papageno with colour and vim. Papageno’s comic relief keeps The Magic Flute from being an infomercial for a misogynistic cult, and St. Clair Nicholson acted the part as easily and as naturally as he sang it.

Karina Gauvin was the other standout as Pamina, Tamino’s destined lover. Gauvin has an extraordinary voice and she does not sing with it as much as coax music out. As part of his ridiculous “trials” in Act II, Tamino swears not to speak to women including Pamina, who is heartbroken when he ignores her and decides to kill herself. Gauvin gave Pamina’s anguished aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” an elegant and aching beauty. It’s the sort of simple aria that talent occasionally makes sublime, unlike the Queen of the Night’s ornate song of vengeance and its catastrophically high F. Singers are applauded just for getting through.

John Tessier was a handy Tamino and sang earnestly, though he and Gauvin made an unromantic couple, and Reinhard Hagen gave the big reliable Sarastro he’s been playing for years. The Orchestre Metropolitan was lively, and smartly led by Alain Trudel, who normally plays trombone.

The sets are identical to the ones designer David Hockney made for the Met in 1991. Houses around the world recycle and I suppose it’s good for the environment, but this one looked dated and showed much that could be better left suggested. This production comes from the San Francisco Opera, which probably has something to do with it. Are we being shown American hand-me-downs when there are local designers happy to take up the challenge?

The Magic Flute continues this season’s theme of competence and excellent singing, boding well for Tosca in January. Hearing Gauvin and St. Clair Nicholson alone is worth it.