How to present The Magic Flute? The problem is that it combines some of Mozart’s most sublimely beautiful and profound music with an absurd plot of nexplicable contradictions. In Opera Siam’s wonderful new production in December at the Thailand Cultural Centre, director Somtow Sucharitkul imaginatively reconciles the discrepancies of the plot by seeing the potential for both good and evil in all of us, at least within our imaginings. He presents the opera as a fantasy which a group of ordinary people jointly entertain. They appear first, during the overture, in their everyday clothes, working in an office, and, in mime, an argument develops between them.
Then, as Act I starts, they are transformed into their fantasy avatars – Princes, Princesses, Priests and so on. Over the course of the opera they work through their petty quarrels. Reconciled, they, and the audience, return to their real lives, happy that friendship and love have eventually triumphed.
The opera is sung in German, with the spoken dialogue a mixture of English and Thai. There are surtitles, in English, Thai and Japanese, which sometimes get out of phase, and, in their English version, employ a weirdly old-fashioned translation – “To your goal leads this road, still you must, young one, manly win.” The chorus are rather thin on the ground, and sometimes, too, in voice.
Yet overall the standard not only equals but actually exceeds what one would expect to experience in a typical European opera house. Mexican/German Emilio Pons’ Tamino has a clear, rather Italianate tenor voice, with great emotional expressiveness (a touch of Gigli). The Australian Damian Whiteley has the powerful and generous basso profondo necessary for Sarastro, while Italian/Thai Monique Klongtruadroke as Queen of the Night is terrific as a wicked witch (think Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians), and sings her two famously fiendish arias effortlessly, hitting top Fs with élan.
The German baritone Falko Hönisch gives a hugely energetic and entertaining performance as Papageno. Schikaneder would surely have approved! The scenes between him and Papagena are the comic highlights, enlivened at the end by their family of tiny Papagenos and Papagenas, played with huge enthusiasm and flapping of wings by a flock of young children. The young Thai soprano Nadlada Thamtanakom is a sensational Pamina, a radiantly beautiful fairytale princess. She sings gloriously with great purity of tone and deeply affecting lyrical warmth – simply the best Pamina I’ve ever seen.
The other outstanding performance is by the young Thai conductor Trisdee na Patalung. It was Opera Siam’s 2006 production of The Magic Flute that marked the operatic debut of the then 20 year-old Trisdee, to rave reviews. It led to Trisdee being invited to conduct at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, to equal acclaim, and further engagements in Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. In this production, Trisdee achieves miracles with the very young orchestra, in a performance of great sensitivity and warmth, bringing out the sublime nature of Mozart’s amazing score. Opera companies around the world should be looking to snap him up.