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Mozart triumphant
Bradley Winterton
Monday,  Nov 11, 2013,22:44 (GMT+7)

Mozart triumphant

Bradley Winterton

By Bradley Winterton in HCMC

A view is seen at The Magic Flute opera in HCMC - Photo: Courtesy of HBSO

Last Saturday was magical for me. Not only was the Saigon weather unseasonably dry and calm, but a magician was waiting for me in the Opera House, preparing to exert his age-old powers once again.

Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute has been charming audiences for two centuries and more. With its combination of crown-pleasing tricks and solemn invocations to the old Egyptian gods, all enshrined in the most delicious music imaginable, few, old or young, have been able to resist its unique allure.

It’s well-known that Mozart combined with his old friend, Emanuel Schikaneder, to create something for the latter’s popular, down-town theater. It was to be in German, the language of the people, not the Italian used in operas destined for the emperor’s court. With a dragon, an evil witch, a sex-hungry bird-catcher and a romantic couple, it’s designed on every side to amuse, frighten and then delight an unsophisticated, popular audience.

But there’s never anything unsophisticated about Mozart’s music, and besides he and Schikaneder had a secret plan. They were both Masons, and Masonry was strongly associated at the time with the creed of liberty, equality and fraternity that was in the process of giving birth to the French Revolution. So they decided to promote their “secret” religion among the ordinary people, and along with it their philosophy of peace, reconciliation and love. Schikaneder wrote the words and Mozart the music, though they doubtless both worked on the plot together, and the result was a masterpiece that is as beautiful as it is profound.

The HBSO Opera and Symphony Orchestra have long been hoping to stage a full-length, fully-staged opera. Dido and Aeneas of two years ago was only an hour long, but with the orchestra and singers becoming increasingly proficient in the 18th century musical style, something else from the period seemed a natural progression. Because of its universal attraction, The Magic Flute was a natural choice.

They decided, however, to proceed carefully, and in two stages. First would come a concert version, without costumes or scenery, but with a few props and some acting. This was what we saw last weekend. Then, next year, will come a fully-staged production, probably with the same singers. It will be the longest and most lavish Western opera Saigon has seen in modern times.

If Saturday’s performance was anything to go by, it will be an astonishing event. Even in a concert version, it was unremittingly delightful. The orchestra played with a sublime freshness, the chorus sang with a wholly new confidence, and the soloists were without exception perfectly fitted to their roles. The near-capacity audience responded with applause after almost every item.

This is all part of the Vietnam-Norway “Transpositon” program, and a number of key roles were played by foreign guests. Hege Gustava Tjonn dazzled as the wicked but plausible Queen of the Night, while tenor Magnus Staveland held the whole production together as the male lead, Tamino. Papageno, the bird-catcher, was endearingly played (with some nifty footwork) by Halvor F. Melien, while the mysterious Sarastro, created on Masonic (and hence ancient Zoroastrian) lines, was finely sung by the bass Derek Anthony.

But the local soloists were every inch their equals. Cho Hae Ryong (Dido in 2011) gave us a heart-stoppingly beautiful Pamina, exceeding everything she has achieved before on this stage, and Tran Duy Linh gave a sympathetic coloring to the role of Monastastos, never an easy part.

The production opted to exclude almost all the spoken dialogue of the original, and it was astonishing how little of the plot was lost as a result. As far as I could make out, the only aspect of the story not covered was Papagena’s first embodiment as an old woman. It didn’t matter, and Nguyen Thi Thu Huong carried off her truncated role with aplomb.

Then there were the Three Ladies and the Three Boys (also ladies in Saturday’s version). There wasn’t a weak link anywhere, and conductor Magnus Loddgard and his team, both locals and guests, are to be congratulated on a production that not only bodes exceptionally well for next year’s fully-staged version, but was an unmitigated delight in its own right.

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