A couple of weeks ago a DVD arrived for me from Premiere Opera: a 1986 Magic Flute from the Sydney Opera House, with - yes - Yvonne Kenny as Pamina. I haven't reviewed it yet and now I don't have to! The excellent Rosel Labone, rising NZ opera singer and frequent commenter here, has seen it recently too, so I asked what she thought - and her response was so wonderful I'm giving it its own post. Voilà:
"Well... the Oz production was a pretty standard (if not a little pedestrian) stab at things, in my opinion. Now I'm not saying a measured take on Mozart is necessarily a bad thing; I think an ounce of prevention is often the best approach to these things. I can't bear post-modern retellings that try to insinuate something subequatorial into every phrase and offhand remark, every nuance of the music. Mozart seems to always grab the short straw when it comes to this kind of direction, possibly because many directors like to draw on the all too believably human aspects of his characters and themes. In general, I like to encounter a production that is innovative in all the right places and offers me a unique view, but still maintains the integrity of the composer and their intentions. Some of the most effective productions are those that get out of the way and let the music communicate, and sometimes, though not always, this can mean very simple or traditional, or stark-looking, staging, stripping things back to their bare bones, so as not to detract but merely enhance the heart of the work.
There is nothing wrong with innovative and effective, yet simple, staging. If the performances themselves have conservative leanings, things can start to become problematic. Let me make myself clear on this point. By no means do I think that performances should be overtly “stagy:” I define conservative acting as that which is not committed enough to make an unflinching connection with the audience. This was a quibble I had with NZ Opera's "Giovanni," and it came to the fore in this production too.
This "Flute" looked a little dated, unsurprising as it was a child of the '80s (oh, they had designers then!)When a mulleted Tamino stepped out onstage, I didn't hold out much hope for things aesthetically improving. But, as I'm sure you're aware by seeing many actors stuck in bad productions, good performances can redeem pretty much anything, even hair crimes. So I waited. And the Tamino wasn't that bad. Really. But the whole thing felt a little...stiff. Most certainly, I was missing the German language. It didn’t really bother me too much that the Papageno bore a striking resemblance to the crocodile hunter circa 1993. And it wasn't that anyone wasn't acting in a dramatic sense, but that was the problem; it felt too acted, too distanced, not real enough. I know there are arguments about and preferences for emblematic vs. realistic acting, especially in the static form of opera, but I personally feel that this “lack of connection” between performer and audience, still unsettlingly prevalent in opera productions, is yet another obstacle to overcome in the battle for the art form to remain relevant to many. Of course, a recorded performance is completely different from what a live audience would be experiencing. I had a discussion once which illustrates my point, where a cast member in an opera production made the comment about another cast member: "her acting looks really good from the audience."
Afraid I have to say that although Yvonne Kenny was vocally very much on top of things, to me at this stage in her obviously young career her artistry was still developing, meaning her holistic approach to the art form... but I'm sure that you completely missed this when watching, Sarah, and I don't want to spoil her performance for you, so ignore me!!! Though I've yet to share your adoration, I realise you are far, far gone into the realms of diva worship and won't be returning anytime soon!
The Kath Battle/Met production looked beautiful but it did chuck everything in with the sink... as a result, it occasionally lost focus (it’s a bit like Giovanni in that way; it’s hard to stage it successfully, there’s so many directions you can take the work, so much thematic richness, you can either give all of them cursory attention or focus on two or three, so certain areas inevitably always fall short.) But the best Flute I experienced on video by a mile was a semi - staged production from 1995 for the Amsterdam festival, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, with a largely Nordic/German cast. I returned the video without writing any details of who they were, and as they were largely not well known, I can’t recall names. But they just GOT this stuff. I found the only trio of ladies that I've actually warmed to so far, and the production also boasted the most spectacular Konigin of any I've encountered. It proved my point about the big M; staging be damned (though I liked the minimal approach here,) it's all in the performances, in getting inside the music, and in how involved, in a real way, the players are. The Pamina blew both my socks off; such an unaffected, natural performance, yet with the vital edge of a young woman experiencing her first real pain. The sublime expression of the nobility of the human spirit, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen,” was beautifully taken. The razor-sharp orchestra presented excellent teamwork, and Mozart specialist Gardiner kept things going along at a corking pace.
There is no doubt in my mind how much capacity this art form still has to evoke, to connect. In such wonders as Cecilia Bartoli, even the most blaze opera goer will be recharged by seeing the new things that can still come out of old art; finding things they never knew were there in the music before, experiencing the new life that’s been breathed into it - even music as well-loved and listened to as Mozart. We need more performers who can make music LIVE."
There you go. So nice for a change to have an objective review of something on this blog. Grazie mille Rosel!
If you were wondering: I agree with the above review on more or less every point. (Papageno really does look like the Crocodile Hunter - I thought exactly the same thing.) We exclude, of course, the comments about Yvonne - but it's quite possible that if I was in any state to watch and listen to her in a cool, detached manner, I might feel the same way about her too. As it is I honestly don't know what my objective opinion would be. When Yvonne is on stage all I know is - Yvonne. So everything she says, does and sings is, by definition, throw-myself-off-a-bridge perfect. And I really do mean everything. I'm utterly enchanted, for instance, by Yvonne's shall we say distinctive way of speaking dialogue. Yvonne can make the most florid Handel coloratura sound like natural speech but for some reason doesn't achieve quite the same feat with actual speech. She's adorably mannered and stage-y, emphasising every third or fourth word and sometimes sounding more like a foreign speaker with an excellent accent (oh Yvonne's accent has a music all of its own..) In fact much of the time it seems she speaks dialogue in musical rather than spoken phrases (I've sometimes thought the same about Greta Garbo). Doesn't make for the most naturalistic acting but for one such as I, so inescapably under her spell, it just adds to the magic.
I only want to add one thing more, and that's a mention of the Queen of the Night in this production, Christa Leahmann. I enjoyed her immensely and I know that I shouldn't have. It can't happen too often, I imagine, that the soprano singing the Königin is actually old enough to be Pamina's mother, but I'd wager this time she was. She's terrifying too, visually and vocally. Will she hit those high notes? Did she in fact hit them? Hard to say. And she skips over a lot of the coloratura rather than attempt to sing it accurately - she's obviously focusing on those Fs to come. So as I say, not the sort of Königin one's supposed to think too highly of perhaps but I loved her. She looked like a particularly sturdy - and particularly ferocious - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, resplendent in midnight blue and powdered wig - and though she wasn't always making the most beautiful sounds, she was brilliant to watch.