No Magical Ending for Irish National Opera's Season
It’s no secret that many of Mozart’s operas display traits that we now find objectionable such as orientalist tropes and sexist attitudes towards women. Even The Magic Flute, for all its childlike innocence, is not immune. The musings of Sarastro and his priests on the fickleness of women is a blatant, if hardly exceptional, reflection of the patriarchal make-up of late eighteenth-century society. The problem for modern productions that earnestly try to hold Mozart and his librettists to account is that many of the overtly misogynistic pronouncements in the opera are also the points where modern audiences tend to laugh the loudest. Of course, the difference between now and Mozart’s time is that the audience is no longer laughing with these sentiments but at them, in full consciousness of how risible they sound from our more enlightened perspective. Rather than giving us a morality lesson, good productions of Cosi fan tutti, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro generally get this and display enough faith in the audience’s sophistication to form their own conclusions. This level of trust, however, was entirely absent in Irish National Opera’s version of The Magic Flute that arrived to the Gaiety Theatre last week (23 May) for the final dates of its tour.
In a truly bizarre introduction in the programme booklet, director Caroline Staunton explained her decision to use the year 1891 – one hundred years after the premiere – as the reference point in order to ‘examine the true consequences of the Enlightenment ideology which runs through Schikaneder’s libretto’. Referencing Brian Friel, Staunton wrote:
We wanted to examine the consequences of colonial actions on the sense of identity of those who survive such Troubles: the overwhelming sense of loss, of displacement; the guilt of those who survive, and of those who judge themselves to be in some way complicit in the actions of the oppressor.
As it turned out, there was not the slightest hint of any colonial analysis evident in the staging. The traditional bearer of this trope, the black slave Monostatos, was cast without any ‘exotic’ characteristics that could be read in this way. On the other hand, the misogynistic angle was pulled, if not dragged, to the forefront through an awkward inversion of the original narrative that placed the abduction of Pamina (Jennifer Davis) from her mother, the Queen of the Night (Audrey Luna), at the centre of the plot, making them both into victims while Sarastro (Lukas Jakobski) assumed the role of arch-villain, keeping the Queen in exile in order to preserve his ‘all-male temple of white privilege’.
Sustaining this improbable narrative involved no end of outright contradictions. Pamina was relieved of any character development and remained oppressively glum throughout, a pose that was frequently at odds with the yearning sentiments she happened to be singing about while Tamino (Tyler Nelson) – never the most dominant of leads – looked like a deeply confused character that had wandered in from another opera. The culmination of this scheme was a forced marriage of Pamina to Tamino after which Pamina flung off her wedding veil and stormed off stage, a gesture that seemed less an expression of pent-up emotion and more an unwitting homage to similar scenes in Runaway Bride or Four Weddings and a Funeral.
There was also a litany of other questionable directorial decisions. Why, for instance, were the Three Boys (Nicholas O’Neill, Seán Hughes and Oran Murphy) running aimlessly about the stage during the overture and again during Papageno’s Act I quintet with the Three ladies and Tamino? Their heavy stomping completely ruined one of Mozart’s best overtures. The trial of fire and water, one of the traditional climactic points, was reinterpreted as a preparation for the forced marriage and turned into a dramatic non-event that had Tamino burn a picture of Pamina in a bowl containing a flame before both himself and his bride were given a quick wipe over the shoulders and arms with a damp cloth – a strange ritual even by forced marriage standards. As regards the ending, the Queen of the Night’s reinvention as victim rather than villain meant that her last stab at destroying Sarastro’s temple had to be conveniently ignored in favour of a soppy reunion with her abducted daughter Pamina. Even if one managed to miraculously suspend disbelief and buy into all of this, at the conclusion, the ‘evil’ Sarastro didn’t get a shred of comeuppance and was left standing with his priests, all looking baffled while everyone else strolled off stage.
Compounding these problems was a poorly thought out ‘Irish’ aspect that interpreted the Queen of the Night – usually the chief provider of drama in the entire opera – as a Banshee huddled in blankets, a garb that made her cut a ridiculous figure and simultaneously smothered the indispensible dramatic element that she brings. The inclusion of other Irish references – the Three Ladies (Rachel Croash, Sarah Richmond, Raphaela Mangan) as the Morrigan Goddesses and Papageno and the Three Boys as wren boys – were insufficiently integrated, too obscure and jarred woefully with the staging of Act II which all of a sudden appeared to stumble onto the set of Downton Abbey with Sarastro conducting temple proceedings in a dinner jacket from his library. Presumably the ‘Irish’ contingent were supposed to be the victims of Sarastro’s newfound imperial mania but this attempt at ‘resonance’ would have been imperceptible had one not read about it beforehand.
The quality of the singing throughout was very mixed. The standout singer was Davis in the role of Pamina. Her full, rounded tone and power compensated somewhat for the misdirection of her character. Andrew Gavin as Monostatos also sang well and showed a lively stage presence, almost overshadowing Tyler Nelson as Tamino. Less impressive was a very off-form Audrey Luna as the Queen of the Night whose voice sounded quite shrill and who struggled to pitch the notes, particularly during the famous ‘Der Hölle Rache’. Perhaps the Banshee persona was to blame but in any case this didn’t sound like the same singer who fearlessly executed vocal pyrotechnics in the fiendishly difficult role of Leticia in Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel back in 2016. Lukas Jakobski was an imposing physical presence as Sarastro but his voice lacked colour in the lower register. Gavan Ring performed admirably as Papageno and almost single-handedly rescued whatever semblance of guilt-free joy remained while his comical antics with Amy Ní Fhearraigh as a coquettish Papagena provided the only element of wit in an otherwise dreary production.
Conductor Peter Whelan paced the opera well but the ‘authentic’ non-vibrato playing was frequently undermined by inconsistent intonation from the string players of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. This was badly shown up in some of the more delicate sections such as the Three Boys trio ‘Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen’. The woodwind section was much more solid.
The set design by Ciaran Bagnall was undeniably beautiful and blended seamlessly with the Gaiety theatre which itself resembles a slightly more down-at-heel version of the Theatre an der Wien which Schikaneder founded in Vienna. On many other levels, however, this production didn’t come close to international standards and marked a disappointing end to what had, up until this point, been a successful year for INO.
Irish National Opera has just launched its 2019/20 season. The next production is the world premiere of Brian Irvine’s Least Like the Other at the Galway International Arts Festival on 15–20 July. For more, visit www.irishnationalopera.ie.
Published on 28 May 2019
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama.