'Magic Flute' enchants

Peter
Peter Jackson
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Review

Zarathustra (or "Zoroaster" in Greek) is not exactly a household name these days. Yet the ancient Persian prophet had a deity-like influence on cultures dating back centuries before Christ.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Zoroaster's teachings were embraced by the freemasons. They resonated with Enlightenment ideals - the triumph of light and wisdom over darkness and superstition.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Zarathustra (or "Zoroaster" in Greek) is not exactly a household name these days. Yet the ancient Persian prophet had a deity-like influence on cultures dating back centuries before Christ.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Zoroaster's teachings were embraced by the freemasons. They resonated with Enlightenment ideals - the triumph of light and wisdom over darkness and superstition.

On Thursday night, opera students and graduates of Memorial University's School of Music, directed by Prof. Caroline Schiller, brought Zoroastrianism into the spotlight once again with an ambitious production of Mozart's "Die ZauberflÖte" (The Magic Flute) at the Reid Theatre. It was the first of a two-night run.

The production was fleshed out with the excellent accompaniment of the MUN Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Vernon Regehr, as well as an entrancing trio of young singers drawn from the ranks of Shalloway youth choir.

Mozart's last and most iconic opera - it premiered in 1791, the year Mozart died - is a grand allegorical fantasy, a blend of fairytale, exotic Egyptian images and masonic idealism. The libretto was written by Mozart's friend and fellow mason, Emanuel Schikeneder.

The main storyline follows a prince, Tamino, on his quest in a strange land to unite with his newly discovered love, Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night. In order to win Pamina and join the great brotherhood of humanity, Tamino is told by the high priest, Sarastro (sound familiar?) that he must undergo various challenges first. The opera is rife with colourful characters, most symbolizing various facets of Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment society.

Now, this is a MUN School of Music production, and the staging was quite sparse. The set looked something like a giant Apple iPad lying lengthwise, on which various images of forests, stone temples, doors and archways appeared. The strength of the opera relied entirely on orchestra, costumes, drama and, of course, singing.

And what singing there was. The numerous solo ranks are all filled by current or former voice students at MUN. And the calibre is pretty close to what you'd get at a small opera house in any larger centre, from New York to Milan.

Of the main parts, the performances of Audrina Steciw as the Queen of the Night and Bethany Turpin as Pamina were particularly spectacular (Pamina will be performed by Susan Watkins in tonight's show). Steciw tackled her famous high-pitched aria with nerves (and vocal cords) of steel.

Jonathan Reed, a MUN music graduate who recently completed a master's degree in performance at the New England Conservatory, played a commanding and musically flawless male lead as Tamino.

The jester often steals the show, and in this case, Patrick Edison owned the stage as the weak-willed "bird man," Popagano. (That role is slated to be filled tonight by Calvin Powell.)

This opera is full of very tightly composed, almost Baroque-like harmonies, and the numerous duos, trios, quartets, etc. proved to be the most pleasing element of the night. The entries and pitching were uniformly seamless throughout. And that's particularly true of the three children, Jona Stilianides, Alice Macgregor and Lauren Shallow. Tonight, they'll be replaced by Colin Mackey, Mary Niamh McGettigan and Jillian Conway. (The children's parts are all supposed to be played by boys, but the opera is too darn male-centric anyway.)

I can't mention all the exemplary soloists by a long shot, and there are other substitutions planned for tonight. The idea is to get as many senior voice majors involved as possible.

Far from a mere school production, however, Thursday's performance seemed to burst at the seams at times. It wanted to break out of the confines of the old Reid Theatre, with its tattered seats and peeling paint. Seats were about three-quarters full, but a larger venue would likely draw a larger audience.

There is an appetite for opera in this town. When Empire Theatres linked into live broadcasts from the Met in New York about three years ago, the initial response was amazing. And the broadcasts continue.

Schiller is the current torchbearer for the School of Music's opera workshop program. For many years, the program has provided excellent instruction and small-scale performance and touring opportunities for students. And every year, the pool of talent grows.

Next year ... Puccini, perhaps?

Peter Jackson (B.Mus. 1987) is The Telegram's commentary editor.

Organizations: MUN School of Music, Reid Theatre, MUN Chamber Orchestra Enlightenment society Apple New England Conservatory Empire Theatres

Geographic location: New York

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Recent comments

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    The purpose of humankind is to sustain truth --asa--- ,this occurs through active participation in life , the exercise of constructive thought , words and deeds .
    Peter, I found your columns by accident, but then it is said there are no accidents.Your thoughts and words are food for this avid reader.

  • Maneck
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    I am a follower of Prophet Zarathushtra's 4500 year-old monotheistic religion that was the majority religion of several Persian empires for over a thousand years, before its invasion by Muslim Arabs.

    I agree with Peter Jackson and other western scholars who have recognized the wide influence of Zarathushtra's teachings. Many later world religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam have incorporated some concepts (kinder and gentler God, Heaven, Hell, Resurrection, five times prayer, etc.)from Zarathushtra's teachings.

    In spite of the Arabian religion of Islam forced on Iran after the Arab conquest, the subconscious of Iranians is influenced by the democratic, progressive values of their ancient prophet, and we hope the brave Iranians will re-establish democracy in Iran some day, where all religions will be freely practiced.

  • Dara
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    Same here

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    The purpose of humankind is to sustain truth --asa--- ,this occurs through active participation in life , the exercise of constructive thought , words and deeds .
    Peter, I found your columns by accident, but then it is said there are no accidents.Your thoughts and words are food for this avid reader.

  • Maneck
    July 01, 2010 - 20:06

    I am a follower of Prophet Zarathushtra's 4500 year-old monotheistic religion that was the majority religion of several Persian empires for over a thousand years, before its invasion by Muslim Arabs.

    I agree with Peter Jackson and other western scholars who have recognized the wide influence of Zarathushtra's teachings. Many later world religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam have incorporated some concepts (kinder and gentler God, Heaven, Hell, Resurrection, five times prayer, etc.)from Zarathushtra's teachings.

    In spite of the Arabian religion of Islam forced on Iran after the Arab conquest, the subconscious of Iranians is influenced by the democratic, progressive values of their ancient prophet, and we hope the brave Iranians will re-establish democracy in Iran some day, where all religions will be freely practiced.

  • Dara
    July 01, 2010 - 19:48

    Same here