Left – Milica Ilic. Cover – Jason Barry-Smith, Jessica Dean and Jonathan Abernethy. Photo – Darcy Grant for Opera Australia
Opera Australia has expanded its repertoire of out-door performances. In the wake of the success of open-air opera performances in Sydney Harbour, its energetic and imaginative artistic director Lyndon Terracini had the idea of putting on an opera on one of Australia’s glorious expanses of coastal sand. The choice of Coolangatta, on the Gold Coast, was a good one, tapping into a changing demographic increasingly interested in high-end Werstern culture in a climate warm enough (just) even in May to make sitting on the beach for two hours at night enjoyable. Teaming up with the exciting local Bleach* festival, and supported again by Dr Haruhisa Handa, as well as local politicians, the opening night of Mozart’s last and perhaps most popular opera was a resounding success.
It was the musical equivalent of a sumptuous picnic on the beach. And since there was no auditorium, there were also no rules about not taking food and drink into it, so one could actually have a picnic while watching it. In these circumstances one is prepared to get a little sand in one’s salmon for the specialness of the occasion.
The singers and the orchestra were of course amplified. This had the disadvantage that Mozart exquisite soft sounds were almost as loud as the loudest passages, but it had several advantages too. Every word the singers sang was audible, and since they were singing in English the project dispensed with surtitles. And the sound engineering meant that the small, indeed Mozart-sized, orchestra, while never swamping the singers, was audible in every detail.
This production was directed by Michael Gow, one of Australia’s most distinguished playwrights. Shortening the piece considerably, especially in the second act, and bending the translation to his will, he gave a rendering of this baffling plot which asked some serious questions, through feminists’ eyes, about what Sarastro (the male world) is really doing. His abduction of Pamina was cast in a sinister light by the revelation that his acolytes resembled a Catholic church choir, and that one of them had attempted to rape Pamina, reminding us of the sexual scandal surrounding the Catholic church in Australia at present. And his decision to give a happy ending to the opera by reconciling Sarastro with his ex-wife, the Queen of the Night (the female world) reinforces one of Mozart’s intentions, which was to hope for the replacement of a male-dominated society with one where the sexes were equally balanced.
The coup de theatre of the evening was a group of surf-life-savers, prancing in from the audience dressed in Queensland maroon 1930s cossies, who formed part of Sarastro’s entourage. As life-savers, they reflected the life-saving role of the three ladies, here a nurse, a nanny, and a maid, in the opening scene.
The chorus was made up of members of local amateur choirs, and the orchestra used as its resource the large number of wonderful professional musicians living in the general area of south-east Queensland. That these forces came together so convincingly was the work of the practical and energetic conductor and chorus-master, Simon Kenway, whose magisterial figure was visible to the singers on a screen half-way down the audience.
The cast is young, apart from Sarastro (Conal Coad), whose deep bass sounded utterly fabulous through the speakers. How good it is to hear such a young cast. Mozart’s singers were young too – the first Countess in Figaro was sixteen. Tamino’s rather goody-goody character was well supported by Jonathan Abernethy’s clear tenor; Janet Todd gave Pamina’s submissive role (well you would be submissive with Sarastro and the Queen of the Night as your parents!) a warm definition; Jason Barry-Smith’s Papageno was energetic and winning, and Jessica Dean was remarkably impressive in the all too small role of Papagena. Benjamin Rasheed, dressed like Syria’s Bashir, was a vibrant and frightening Monastotos.
But the night belonged (appropriately enough, I suppose) to the Queen of the Night herself. Milica Ilic is a coloratura soprano in a class by herself. How often do you hear a singer who in a few notes completely spell-binds an audience? And the whole audience knew it. Every note warm yet crystal-clear, what is truly remarkable about her singing is the emotional intensity with which she is able to imbue a single phrase. She commands attention, like Maria Callas (very different kind of voice of course), through an indefinable at-one-ness with her voice, so that it compels a resonance with the emotions of the listeners. Wow! Everyone who hears her in this production will be able to say some day, I heard this great soprano at the beginning of her career.
There are two more performances, tonight (10th May) and tomorrow. Don’t miss this opportunity.
Opera Australia in partnership with Bleach Festival, City of Gold Coast and Tourism and Events Queensland present
Opera on the Beach
Mozart's The Magic Flute
Directed by Michael Gow
Venue: Greenmount Beach, Coolangatta
Dates: 9 – 11 May 2014
Tickets: from $35