Opera Hong Kong’s summer semi-staged performances showcase local singers; this year’s production was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The fact that this work is more commonly known by its English name, The Magic Flute, is an indication that it is somewhat unusual: it’s known as a “singspiel”, or “sing-play”, which, like a musical, has spoken dialogue between the singing. The fairy-tale storyline doesn’t have the tightest of plots. The work was written for the Theater auf der Wieden, a commercial suburban theatre, and was designed for popular consumption, an approach carried through in this production, with dialogue in Cantonese (played successfully for laughs) and a certain amount of well-received mugging for the audience, most notably by Sammy Chien as the birdcatcher Papageno.
The orchestra was on stage, leaving—the pit having been covered over—a relatively wide strip of stage in front for performing. Actual sets were minimal and static; there were no scene changes. This all worked: the orchestra and the chorus behind and above on a platform, formed a sort of backdrop to the action. While the singers were in costume, these employed a similar minimalist aesthetic.
Except, that is, for soprano Etta Fung, singing the Queen of the Night (the main villain of the piece), who seems not to have heard the “semi-staged” part of the production description. Resplendent in a shimmering night-sky-colored gown, and dripping in jewels, she looked (and acted) as if she had just stepped off an opening gala red carpet.
Opera Hong’s past summer performances have, by giving them leads, helped highlight local singers who might just be going somewhere. Louise Kwong, who starred in the previous two summer productions of Madama Butterfly and a Puccini double-bill, has since debuted at the Opera di Roma. Fung had previously impressed around town, for stage presence as well as singing. Mozart gives the best music of the night—the show-stopping aria “Der Hölle Rache”—to the Queen of the Night (which was originally premiered by Mozart’s sister-in-law Josepha Hofer), which Fung managed with aplomb. It’s a shame she wasn’t on stage longer.
But no one in The Magic Flute, not even the hero Tamino, is on stage very long; the singing is shared by a relatively large cast. The other leads, Chen Yong as Tamino, Collette Lam as Pamina, Sammy Chien as Papageno and Apollo Wong as Sarastro, are by now relatively known quantities and were well-cast: The Magic Flute suits them. But secondary roles in The Magic Flute are given quite a lot to do; that these could also be well-cast is an indication of how much the Hong Kong talent pool has deepened in recent years. Sandy Leung lit up the stage as Papagena showing the same talent for coquettery as she did as Princess Mi in Opera Hong Kong’s production of Franz Lehár’s operetta Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) a few years back. The Queen of the Night’s three ladies in waiting—Samantha Chong, Paulina Yeung and Dominique Chan—acquitted themselves well, individually and in ensemble.
Opening night was sold out. The Magic Flute continues tonight. Good luck getting a ticket.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books; he wrote the programme notes and synopsis for this production.