In the Valley of the Kings: Opera Australia’s The Magic Flute (Regional tour)

Fifteen or sixteen years ago, I loved a series of books about an archaeologist (and little-known poet) called Cairo Jim who had as companions a blue-and-gold macaw and a telepathic ‘wonder camel.’ The brain-child of author Geoffrey McSkimming, the intrepid trio criss-crossed the once-ancient world, foiling the nefarious schemes of Captain Neptune Bone, restoring wrongs to rights, discovering immeasurable wonders and falling in love with Jocelyn Osgood. My favourite was the very first volume in the long-running series, Cairo Jim & Doris in Search of Martenarten – there was something about it that grabbed my nine-year-old imagination and kicked it into the stratosphere. There was adventure by the bucketload, sand (lots of sand), and some very silly puns; it was almost like an Errol Flynn film, or the Indiana Jones films, except in a book, for younger readers. Like a lot of kids (and, I suppose, adults too), I loved the mystery and intrigue that surrounded Ancient Egypt, all the gods and tombs and treasures, the mummies wrapped in kilometres of bandages, the colossal temples, pyramids, statues. Once I discovered the series had ended (at least for the time-being, or so we are reassured), I read them all again, and ‘Martenarten’ is still the best.
Imagine, then, my delight when I discovered Opera Australia’s regional touring production for 2014 was a new version of Mozart’s immortal The Magic Flute, set in 1930s Egypt a la Indiana Jones. Inevitable quibbles of Hollywood B-movies and Saturday afternoon serials aside, this Magic Flute, directed and adapted by Michael Gow, is full of the adventure, danger, romance and magic that Mozart’s music so perfectly captures, and is an inordinate amount of fun.

Robert Kemp’s richly textured set recalls those of the Hollywood films which inspired this production and holds up to anything seen on the silver screen; the stage’s letterbox presentation does nothing to destroy this allusion. Set ostensibly in an Egyptian temple, it also becomes a tomb and a doorway into a world of dangers, trials, spirits and mummies. Kemp’s costumes complete the illusion with references to the imperial wave of exploration which followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, and the cultural subjugation and superiority that followed. Still drawing on Mozart’s themes of Enlightenment, fantasy and the Rule of Three, Gow makes a crucial (albeit slight and not destructive) alteration to Mozart and Schikaneder’s ending and ensures that you leave with a smile. Not only does it restore a kind of balance to the world of the Flute, but it also corrects the Enlightenment way of thinking about good and evil, makes sense of the ending so that no one is truly lost or damned. Under Matt Scott’s lighting, every bit as rich and colourful as a pharoah’s tomb or a Hollywood picture, the theatrical and melodramatic lineage of Gow’s Flute is undisputed and celebrated; his simulation of fire and water is simple, effective, and finely attuned to the production’s touring nature.
This is a production that relies less on magic and more on human-kind’s capacity for generosity, compassion and goodwill. In this regard, Gow’s cast are all superb – we don’t see any one character as more or less good than any other because of the way they act; just as each person is a combination of their good and bad experiences, neither should truly ever cancel out or overwrite the other. We are all capable of good deeds, just as much as we are of cruel ones, but that shouldn’t make us any less human. While Sarastro seems at first like a power-hungry archaeologist-cum-philosopher, we soon learn that he has divorced his wife, the Queen of the Night, and that their daughter, Pamina, is the collateral or bargaining tool (much like the Changeling boy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It makes the whole opera more human and much less mystical but no less mysterious.
Sam Roberts-Smith brought a charisma and charm to his Tamino, an adventuring ‘prince’ dressed very much like Indiana Jones; “he looks like a movie star,” the Three Ladies sang at one point. I don’t know if it was love he felt for Pamina, but his actions and progress through the three challenges were enough to bring a family together again, to restore balance and order in this world. Stacey Alleaume’s Pamina was determined, knew what she had to do, even if it was a hard choice to make. Regina Daniel’s Queen of the Night, a society-hostess in a glittering gown and blistering white hair, was fiery and resplendent in her arias, but brought a humanness and a very real sense of anger and indignation to her character, something which is often lost in other, more magical, productions. Steven Gallop’s Sarastro, an archaeologist in the grip of Egyptmania, had dignity and gravitas, a warmth to his voice which seemed to speak of reason and intelligence, but instead was perhaps more of just a sureness of his (at times, wrongful) convictions. Christopher Hillier’s Papageno, while the necessary comic-relief character, had a charm and an innocence to his desperate quest for a girlfriend or a wife; Anna Dowsley’s Papagena was Hillier’s equal, a sugary flighty figment of his imagination, two lovebirds in a nest, and their duet at the end was every bit as silly, flirtatious and euphemistic as it could be. Benjamin Rasheed brought a very human jealousy and desire to his Monostatos, a man who has been subjugated by the British imperialists to suit their cause; his turn as a mummy in the opening moments made sure the production found its tone immediately and it did not flag for a second. The Three Ladies – Hannah Dahlenburg, Emma Castelli, and Anna Yun – were a maid, schoolgirl and a nurse, and sang with grace, charm and cheekiness. The two guards – Nicholas Jones and Andrew Moran – were good-natured, stoic, and eversoslightly overplaying their roles, relishing every moment, opportunity and costume-change, to the delight of the audience.
Gow’s adaptation ensures that the text, sung in English, is concise, modern and uncluttered. It is also quite cheeky, with numerous in-jokes to its not-so-subtle sources of inspiration and still manages to rhyme and fit the rhythm of Mozart’s music. As classic a quest story as you will ever find, Gow says it is all about a “young man who wants to find enlightenment and true love, but he’s got it all the wrong way around, and has to deal with his own ego. Much of this opera is about letting go of what you want, and finding a way to meet people halfway.” It’s about grace, forgiveness and compassion, about music and its power to redeem, strengthen and heal. Mozart’s music, performed here by a nine-strong chamber orchestra, is crisp and clear, and is perfectly suited to the production’s scale and needs, while losing none of Mozart’s colour, vitality or enchantingness.
This is a Flute that does not get bogged down in the Masonic symbolism inherent in Mozart and Schikaneder’s original; rather than emphasise the ‘magic,’ it highlights the human relationships and struggle at the heart of the opera and ensures that you are swept up in the adventure, caught amongst the sands of the Valley of the Kings, and that for one night you are a kid again, dreaming of archaeologists, treasures, mummies and adventure, every bit as colourful, emotional, romantic and eventful as anything Hollywood could conjure up.

Theatre playlist: 43. Sandcastles, from The Mummy Returns, Alan Silvestri

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