Mark Godden’s “The Magic Flute”, with its mix of classical ballet and contemporary cultural references, is great fun. Not just for the work itself, but also because of the reactions of the audience. To hear so many chuckles and gales of laughter at the ballet was a pleasure. Like Mozart’s 1791 German opera “Die Zauberflöte”, the comic opera-cum-fairy tale on which it is based, Godden’s ballet is popular entertainment presented with style.
The American-born, Montréal-based choreographer created the work for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where he trained and danced before becoming resident choreographer from 1990 through 1994. Godden’s first full-length ballet, the unforgettable “Dracula”, was created for the same company in 1998, and was subsequently made into an award-winning film, “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary”, by Guy Maddin.
Typical of Godden’s choreography, “The Magic Flute” features classical dance with a relaxed, vernacular touch. There are many moments when the traditional vocabulary of ballet is complemented by contemporary touches, such as the flattened hands at the top of a port de bras, flexed feet and rounded backs. Other modern influences include the wide second position pliés, which judder forward with a series of little jumps, and the fast, gestural arms. While each act sagged somewhere around the middle due to a choreographic sameness, a decent number of beautifully executed leaps and spins (notably by Yosuke Mino as Papageno) often enlivened things.
Godden goes further with body language than the usual ballet, and has created solid physical characterizations for his cast. Young Pamina (Vanessa Lawson) moves with adolescent speed between extremes of hope and discouragement, while Papageno struts like a Neanderthal male, all heavy pelvic thrust. Some of the funniest moments in the ballet come from Papageno, particularly his wandering eye and hands. There is also much good, old-fashioned phallic humour at the expense of our hero, Tamino (Johnny Wright), who proves an excellent straight man, although the role itself is a little low-key for a lead.
As for Godden’s staging, some of it is inspired. Tamino opens the ballet not by leaping on from stage right or left, but by falling centre stage from the flies. Props are rolled onto the stage or dropped down from above, like the nightlight that Sarastro (Alexander Gamayunov) turns on for his daughter, Pamina. There are also loud explosions and babies (not real ones, of course) descending in swaddling clothes. The fabulous snow scene at the end is reminiscent of the 1975 film of Mozart’s opera by Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, a film that apparently inspired Godden.
The large props provide accents for the open, bare stage, with atmospheric lighting by Pierre Lavoie that beautifully calls attention where needed. Set designer Paul Daigle gets to shine in the second act, when a wall made of glass bricks forms a towering backdrop. Daigle has also designed the colourful, tastefully tacky costumes, including skintight lamé bellbottom pants for Pamina; bright, baggy trousers for Papageno; and a furry vest, blue wig and eighteenth-century frock coat among the wardrobe for a trio that Godden calls the Navigators.
Godden has tightened Mozart’s opera to make a two-hour and twenty-minute evening, including one intermission, so he only has time to skim along the surface of the tale in terms of storytelling. Still, the program synopsis is a full page of intricate storyline. There is no getting around the complicated plot, which in the opera is helped by spoken dialogue. Godden includes two brief text passages in English: as Tamino looks at a picture of Pamina (which hangs from the flies facing the audience), a voice-over intones, “Pamina. Sarastro. Rescue.” Later, as Pamina regards Tamino’s picture, we hear, “Tamino. Rescue. Love.” It doesn’t work, first because it’s awkward and forced, and second because only those audience members who know the plot will understand the significance of the three cryptic words, and they aren’t the ones who might need help with the story.
The soundtrack is comprised of the actual Mozart opera. When the work premiered in Winnipeg in October 2003, and also when it was presented at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (the NAC were co-producers of the ballet), live singers and orchestra were part of the experience. Unfortunately, the rest of us had to make do with a recording (by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields). Although there were no surtitles explaining the German text, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the opera knew what was going to happen at the start of each aria, and more than once the dance seemed to be simply filling in the time, sometimes by almost miming. The choreography for the Queen of the Night (Tara Birtwhistle), for instance, with its extreme breadth of open arms and pleading, outstretched hands, appeared to be trying to match the extreme passion of the vocals rather than creating something new.
The subtler Enlightenment principles that reportedly engaged Godden during the creation of “The Magic Flute” are not explored as fully as the comedy. Yes, the wall of glass bricks that the wise Sarastro has Pamina build is effective symbolism but whether or not audience members will understand it as “representing a new openness in communication and the withering of old barriers” (as Randal McIlroy describes it in the program) is doubtful. It is, however, clearly presented as a great accomplishment by Pamina, and decorates the stage during the second act with authority and beauty.
Another theme, the criticism of contemporary life in terms of addiction to television, does not say anything new or gripping, but seems merely a way to update Mozart’s dragon from the original. As well, the relationship of Monostatos (Reyneris Reyes) to Pamina is fuzzy: his physical aggression apparently arises from jealousy instead of pure lust. While updating this role was necessary (the racist implications of a sexually aggressive Moor would be unacceptable today), Godden does not present a clear alternative.
What we do get in Godden’s “Magic Flute” is an irreverent, often hilarious tale of true love succeeding despite the many obstacles in its way. Tamino’s obstacles are primarily external, while Papageno’s main obstacle is the internal one of his lusty, fickle nature. Papageno is really the hero, or antihero, of this version, and Yosuke Mino, a member of the corps de ballet, swaggered through the role with wonderful gusto.