Il Mago di Oz: opera debut is old humbug

Victorian Opera’s Il Mago di Oz opened last night with Dorothy (Georgia Wilkinson) lying centre stage. Ostensibly she is inside a tornado represented by a children’s chorus.

“I am surrounded,” she sang, “by a deafening noise like a wave crashing on the ocean.”

Behind her, the string section played a lullaby pianissimo. Sadly the production went downhill from there.

In the century following its publication, L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been adapted hundreds of times. Some of these adaptations have gone on to become cultural touchstones. MGM’s 1939 movie, broadway’s Wicked and The Wiz leap most readily to mind. The rest went on to be middling distractions. One in a series of endless reboots for an audience ever ready to tap their platinum credit cards and return to the land of Oz.

Italian opera Il Mago di Oz falls into this latter category.

Though Pierangelo Valtinoni’s score is not completely without its charms, it belongs in a performing arts high school, not the season of a professional opera company. The mind fairly boggles at what sordid thieves bargain saw Victorian Opera stranded with this dog in the first place. It can only be hoped Valtinoni didn’t have to endure their production, a glimpse into the void of what happens when bad artistic direction happens to good artists.

Director Constatine Costi’s semi-staged version drowns in the expanse of the beautiful Palais. A series of scrims behind the on-stage orchestra display an ongoing newsreel of abstract visuals from winking eyes to talking heads. No doubt it’s an aesthetic tip to something. It couldn’t matter less what. A mismatch between lyrics, setting, and score shafts the cast liberally at every turn.

“I almost died!” Dorothy announces to the Munchkins (children’s chorus) upon her descent into Oz. The read has all the passion of “I just farted!”

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” says a Good Witch, “but it’s actually fine.” If only.

By the time we’re off to see Il Mago (poor bastard), the subtitle translation for the Italian libretto has managed to shoehorn in “g’day”, “mate” and “doofus”. They get the biggest laughs. You can almost feel the cast cringe. To the credit of the actors involved, they sing gamely through each ludicrous, undercooked scene.

It’s astounding to see a company that once staged incredible productions like 2013’s Nixon in China reduced to the likes of this. More of the same in a season populated by such vapid fare as Cinderella and A Christmas Carol. With Opera Australia wedded to big-budget musicals and Melbourne Opera churning out the most clueless Wagner you ever saw, it’s a bad time to be an opera lover in Victoria.

A new artistic director, Stuart Maunder, takes over Victorian Opera next year. Whether he can raise a pulse with their next season remains to be seen. But for now, this company’s road to hell is paved in artless yellow brick.