MARIO AND THE MAGICIAN Music by Harry Somers Libretto by Rod Anderson Directed by Robert Carsen
For many opera lovers, the only composers worth listening to are dead. Only a few contemporary composers, most notably the American Philip Glass, have managed to find a niche among Mozart, Verdi and Wagner in the schedules of modem companies. In Canada, Harry Somers has been bravely fighting that trend since he first began to write operas in the 1950s. Now 66, Somers is best known for his 1967 work, Louis Riel. On May 19, the Canadian Opera Company mounted the first performance of his sixth opera, Mario and the Magician, based on a novella by the German writer Thomas Mann, at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. The $ 1-million production is darkly colored, ambitious and expertly performed. But it is unlikely to replace La Traviata or The Magic Flute on any list of hummable favorites.
The choice of the Mann tale as the basis for
an opera seems odd. Opera is the most flamboyantly dramatic of the art forms. It requires moments of high contrast and conflict. But Mann’s parable about the rise of fascism builds its effects slowly, out of seemingly insignificant events. In the late 1920s, German novelist Stefan (Theodore Baerg), his wife, Martha (Marcia Swanston), and their two children go to Italy on a holiday, only to encounter rude discrimination from the other residents of their resort. An official fines them because their young daughter appears momentarily naked on a public beach. A headwaiter refuses them their rightful table at the hotel restaurant. Finally, they attend a lengthy magic show conducted by a sinister magician, Cipolla, who mocks them for being foreigners. His lurid performance, which ends in violence, symbolizes the rising tide of fascism in Europe.
The Italy of Mario and the Magician is a cheerless place. The sun is oppressive. The dark-suited Italians are surly, cruel and alarmingly conformist. In the opera’s opening scenes, Somers, librettist Rod Anderson and director Robert Carsen convey the mood of
deepening tragedy with great force. Somers has contributed a score of subtle rhythms and rising tensions, using minor keys to suggest the sadness and neurotic anxiety of an Italy in the grips of irrational hatreds and fears. Stefan’s family is subtly threatened at every turn.
But that powerfully established mood, sustained through three hours, eventually grows tedious. Mario and the Magician is a onenote opera which hammers so hard at the evil of fascism that its message begins to seem obvious and trite. The problem is summed up in the Mussolini-like figure of Cipolla (David Rampy), whose magic show occupies most of the opera. Trick by trick, he mesmerizes and enslaves his audience members until they are waltzing clumsily around the stage like trained elephants. But his mastery of them is so effortless and unlikely (he hypnotizes them against their will) and his villainy so onedimensional, that the problem of fascism becomes grossly oversimplified. As well, there is not enough dramatic tension in his scenes to justify all the dramatic music: Mario and the Magician frequently sounds bigger and more important than its narrative details warrant.
The lack of true drama in the opera flows partly from its disjointed plot. The first act centres on Stefan and his family. In the second and third acts, those characters largely fade into the background as Cipolla takes centre stage. As a result, the unity of the opera is based more on theme than on character. In the end, Mario and the Magician becomes a simplistic and cerebral exploration of an idea rather than a complex dialogue between fully developed human beings.
Still, the show has its moments. The scene in which the hotel guests badger the waiter, Mario (Benoit Boutet), is a superbly crafted picture of dignity in the face of arrogance. And Cipolla’s magic show briefly gains an ominous power when he hypnotizes a woman, Signora Angiolieri (Heather Thomson), into following him offstage as her husband (Martin Spencer) grovels behind in an agony of concern.
The singing and acting are generally superb. The chorus does some particularly fine work in portraying the detailed reactions of Cipolla’s stage audience. But on the whole, the opera lacks a sense of play and variety, and its high seriousness too often comes across as selfimportance. As well, its score, although rich in texture, lacks a truly memorable melody. Mario and the Magician is high-minded and clever. But it fails to meet a more fundamental need—to entertain.
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