A touch too much trickery and not enough magic Mozart

OPERA Mozart: The Magic Flute Opera Australia State Theatre, April 21, until May 12

THIS abbreviated and fantasy-laden version of Mozart and Schikaneder's immortal and durable Singspiel comes to Opera Australia from New York's Metropolitan Opera, where it was directed by Julie (The Lion King) Taymor.

This is really more a puppet show than an opera, with its pantomimic elements often ingenious and witty, but does it do justice to the original or trivialise it?

Opera Australia performs Mozart's <i>The Magic Flute</i>.
Opera Australia performs Mozart's The Magic FlutePhoto: Michael Clayton-Jones

The answer, I think, lies betwixt and between. The music (what there is of it) is respected: on opening night, Paul Kildea conducted with precision and clarity, and Orchestra Victoria responded accordingly.

But the score has been given a crewcut: no overture, many numbers reduced to a single verse, and some, such as Papageno and Pamina's glorious Act I duet, Bei Maennern, simply omitted.

JD McClatchy's deft rhyming-couplet translation serves its purpose, even if diction did not always do it honour.

Taymor's production, directed by Matthew Barclay, suits the State Theatre stage well, as do George Tsypin's fantastical sliding, gliding and revolving sets.

Taymor also designed the costumes, which are, for the most part, boldly stylistic. But I suspect, at least from this performance, which seemed under-rehearsed, that not everything has settled in: there were some awkward stage moments and also some tentative, imprecise singing, especially in the ensembles.

The Three Spirits, for example, were ethereal to the point of inaudibility; but the Three Ladies were good.

Of the principals, Andrew Brunsdon's Tamino could have been stronger, and David Parkin's Sarastro more sonorous. Andrew Jones' Papageno, however, was clear, strong and full of swagger and charm (but why the Ocker spoken voice?), as was Taryn Fiebig's feisty, honey-voiced Pamina.

After a shaky start, Lorina Gore's Queen of the Night managed the impossible tessitura, but with some interesting interpolations.

Kanen Breen's gargoyle-masked, pot-bellied Monostatos, already sufficiently outlandish, didn't require all that superimposed hysteria. Kiandra Howarth's vivacious Papagena was expertly sung: a young singer to watch, I think.

The Magic Flute is, along with Carmen, one of the most adaptable of operas. In fact, Melbourne has seen more than its share of Flutes recently, including a fine one from South Africa that, while taking huge liberties with the music and setting, at least kept the opera's origins in focus.

The trouble with Taymor's production is that its feathered and furred ritualistic participants, who range from strutting flamingos and whirling birds to giant dancing bears, threaten to overwhelm the more essentially human characters on whom the work's success ultimately depends.

The Flute may be susceptible to imagery, but it is not entirely a menagerie. In the final scene, the puppet stuff vanishes, leaving the living to tell the story. The result is a curiously bleak tableau that reduces opera to oratorio.

Opera Australia is promoting this production as "two hours of magic for the whole family". I'm not sure what adults or children would derive from this hotchpotch of special effects.