QUEBEC CITY – Since its inauguration in 2011, the Festival d’opéra de Québec has functioned in part as a hatchery for the inspirations of Robert Lepage, many of which migrate to the Metropolitan Opera. The marquee production this summer, The Magic Flute, affirms Lepage’s status as one of the leading conservatives of our time.
That epithet might seem to run counter to the wide acclaim this native of Quebec City enjoys for novel stagecraft. There are theatrical coups aplenty in his version of Mozart’s Singspiel, courtesy of Ex Machina, the production company that also supplied (for better or worse) the special effects in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and Wagner’s Ring. Yet none of the dazzle gets in the way of the basic narrative or the humanistic message it is meant to convey. Here is a Flute that an operagoer of 1791, 1891, or 1991 could recognize and relate to.
The setting is – as it was for Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder – a Freemasonic evocation of ancient Egypt. Headdresses have an updated King Tut look about them. Ankhs are embossed on the back of chairs, and priests are adorned with enough gold lamé to make eye-squinting occasionally necessary. Sarastro is carted off in a solar boat on wheels. A great sun presides over the peace and harmony of the final scene. Rarely has a spoiler alert been less necessary.
The Queen of the Night lives up to her name by delivering her Act 1 aria atop a great gown of starry fabric and its more famous counterpart in Act 2 from a suspended capsule that could be interpreted as the moon itself. She also is draped in Pharaonic horizontal stripes, but her signature color, critically, is silver.
Amid these mythological surroundings Tamino and Pamina seem palpably human, the former costumed as an exotic prince, the latter wearing a formal gown that smartly conveys her incorruptibility. No experienced operagoer would fail to recognize the ragtag getup of Papageno, complete with an echt-Quebec toque. Monostatos looks like a Moor and cracks a real whip to compensate for his comical lack of courage. Apparently Lepage did not get the memo warning directors against perpetrating traditional stereotypes.
In fact, this production as seen on August 2 in the Grand Théâtre de Québec was in many ways a deeply traditional show. The menacing snake at the start was an articulated beast obviously held aloft by stilts. When Tamino finds himself smitten by the portrait of Pamina, the object of his adoration miraculously emerges from the apparently empty frame.
Characters often enter from the backstage blackness, thus avoiding clumsy walk-ons from the wings. The three boys fly on magic carpets. Tricks, obviously, but how were they accomplished? The viewer suspends disbelief gladly, as at a show by David Copperfield.
Papageno’s gags likewise bring to mind the repertoire of the classical magician. By suddenly producing an outsize bird-catching net during his “Vogelfänger” aria, he essentially pulls a rabbit out of his hat. One of the most charming inspirations is the artificial bird holding aloft the rope and noose with which this poor fellow considers ending it all for the lack of his beloved Papagena – a brilliant means of lightening an option that really should not, even in opera, be taken lightly.
Many of the rituals of Act 2 unfold in something like a complex of funhouse mirrors. Life can be like that! And while the sets are free of the rocky formations and foliage mentioned in the original stage direction, the starry background (constellations are used for both the fanciful opening credits and the apotheosis of the central lovers) serves admirably as an extension of the human mind.
Performances, of course, were essential to the positive effect. Handsome vocally and otherwise, tenor Frédéric Antoun was a three-dimensional Tamino who conveyed humanity in both his recitatives and arias. Soprano Simone Osborne was brighter in tone but believably beset by grief in “Ach, ich fühl’s.”
Bass-baritone Gordon Bintner was firm-voiced and funny as Papageno, while John Relyea, helpfully tall, summoned a dark tone to create a Sarastro that was more fearsome than humane. Eric Thériault wielded his light tenor with compensatory agility as Monostatos. The lone disappointment (and non-Canadian) among the majors was the American coloratura Audrey Luna, who was out of tune and out of sorts as the Queen of the Night.
There were signs that this Flute remains a work in progress. Pacing sometimes flagged in Act. 2. A puzzling hiatus followed “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” during which a clock could be heard ticking but nothing happened on stage. One of the traditional highlights of The Magic Flute is the summoning of wildlife by Tamino in Act 1 as he plays the instrument of the title. All we got was an array of illuminated eyes. Perhaps there will be more fauna at the Met (the company has confirmed that it will mount this production, but not specified when). One expects also that certain solos delivered under heavy spotlighting from downstage center will be dealt with more creatively at Lincoln Center.
We will likely hear a heartier chorus in New York, but there could be no complaints about the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, with its colorful winds and vibrant strings. Thomas Rösner, an Austrian conductor, found a golden mean of rigour and lyricism. Sarastro would approve of his approach.
It should be mentioned that Lepage has run into some difficulties lately with the PC police, notably for SLĀV, a show presented under the auspices of the Montreal International Jazz Festival (and cancelled after two of 16 scheduled performances) in which white performers sang songs normally equated with the African American experience. In this version of The Magic Flute, the misogynistic comments of the Speaker (played by the sturdy bass-baritone Neil Craighead), Sarastro, and the priests who counsel awareness of “womanly wiles” are left unmolested.
Can these offensive words be reasonably contextualized by the masonic allegory? The debate will go on. Lepage, a director with uncommon respect for the score and the text, is apparently willing to let spectators decide for themselves. Much appreciated.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.