Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: (Toronto) The Magic Flute

Ambur Braid and Laura Albino (photo by Bruce Zinger)

Tempos off, Singers Lost
Opera Atelier's Magic Flute has serious problems
by Shannon Christy

I am tired of those painted boards in lieu of set. Can I say it loud enough? Can I? Gerard Gauci might be a talented painter exhibiting in Toronto and in Montreal, but I want a set. Not a 2D wall with 2 benches in front.

Opera Atelier’s production of The Magic Flute last night was terrible at best. It felt like a rehearsal, with everything going half tempo and the singers looking directly at the conductor half of the time, as if to make sure they were okay. One thing was sure all right: every singer’s part was very well spelled out. I guess it was a good thing since the opera is sung in English: the surtitles were barely needed but God! Was. It. Slow. By the time it is over you will be working hard to suppress the memory of seeing it. 

It is a fun story written by two friends and freemasons.

This is unfortunate because it robs Torontonians of the opportunity to truly see the second and most popular of Mozart’s operas presented in Toronto this season (the first being the Canadian Opera Company's brilliant presentation of La Clemenza di Tito). The plot is about the quest of prince Tamino, (Colin Ainsworth), and his bird-like companion Papageno, (Oliver LaQuerre), to rescue princess Pamina, (Laura Albino), who has been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, Sarastro, played by João Fernandes.

It is a fun story written by two friends and freemasons. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed the music and the lyrics were crafted by the comedic genius of Emanuel Schikaneder. It was produced for a popular audience and was an immediate success with 197 showings of the original production.  The failure of this production has nothing to do with either Mr. Mozart or Mr. Schikaneder.  

The set of Mr. Gauci, looks as if they are mere renderings of what should be built.  From the pagoda to the boat, which carries Tamino and Papageno’s little guides, you have what looks like a rough draft instead of the final product: a process that works well with the production of a well-funded private school but not with the second opera house of Toronto. 

The direction of this production is mediocre at best.  The story is played out as is, straight from the libretto, with very little depth added to it by director Marshal Pynkoski.  The comedic aspect is definitely played out, although superficially and at times embarrassingly simplified, which makes sense since the performers do not look like they have been asked much in terms of characterization. I am still trying to forget the Papageno-Papagena part with arms and feathers symmetrically moving from one Papageno to one Papagena as the singers/lovebirds stand a safe three meters apart. 

The singers’ performances are average. The truth is that Ms. Albino, Mr. LaQuerre, and Mr. Fernandes know the music well enough to be able to follow the tempo and have no problem expressing themselves as they perform. This is not a high standard but they do the audience the courtesy of reaching it. Unfortunately this cannot be said of Mr. Ainsworth or Ambur Braid who plays The Queen of the Night.  Both performers seem to be physically attached/dependent on looking at the conductor during their performances. This is unfortunate because Mr. Ainsworth populates the work and Ms. Braid has the most physically demanding aria. Ms. Braid pulls off the aria and if you look up to the ceiling the strength of her voice can carry you away but when you come back to earth and watch as she lumbers across the stage while never taking her eyes off the conductor you are left feeling lonely.

The most obvious failing, however, comes from conductor David Fallis. One has the impression that this is a rehearsal at half tempo so singers and musicians can learn their parts and put more soul into future performances. As the tempo lags and drags you down with it you start wondering if the obvious threat of overtime will at last be a good incentive for the orchestra to speed up a bit.

The show is a disaster from start to finish and I do not know why. True I can describe what does not work but I cannot tell why they allowed such mediocrity to permeate what is otherwise a very talented group.  This is such a departure from their fall production Der Freischütz for which apparently Opera Atelier received a generous private gift of $200,000.  The only explanation I can think of, is Opera Atelier can do great things - with the appropriate funding.  Let’s hope that their upcoming Fundraising Gala is a success.

In any case, if you are looking for the magic that opera provides go elsewhere. If you want to see some of the most talented performers in Canada fail this is your show. 

The Magic Flute runs until April 13


  1. The Ghost of NannerlApril 11, 2013 at 11:13 PM

    I get the sense, as I read this review, that you attended the wrong production, or inadvertently traversed another dimension, because every impression I had of the production was quite literally the opposite, and it was anything but a "failure." This production is actually notably shorter than all others I have heard: tempi were quite daringly brisk, and sections of dialogue and music were cut. Whatever qualms one might have with Mr. Pynkoski's more stylized staging, there is certainly no cause to dispute the quality or polish of the performers' execution -- or maybe you can sing a few of the Queen's numbers and show us how it's done.

    I write this because I feel this review is misleading -- the production is really very excellent and definitely worth seeing.

  2. I'm going to second the above comment. I'm not sure if they raised their game this weekend vs what you saw performed, but this was easily one of the best performed operas I've seen this season, and I include the COC. Packed house and an entertained audience, first rate singing, and actual acting as opposed to the sort of wooden posing that seems to pass for it in many opera productions.

  3. "Gerard Gauci might be a talented painter exhibiting in Toronto and in Montreal" FACT _ - he IS a talented painter exhibiting in those cities and has been for over twenty years.
    Gerard has been designing with the company since the mid 1980s.

    The "painted boards" you refer to are also known as "rep sets" which is another historical accuracy in the Atelier productions - trompe l'oeil drops that are mixed and marched throughout a company's repertoire of productions, in OA's case - nine.

    Oddly enough the same "painted boards and benches" you decry in Flute were also used in Clemenza, which you seem to take no issue with.


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