THE MAGIC FLUTE
Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2019
I jumped at the chance to see this production again, having first enjoyed it a couple of years ago. Director Dominic Cooke sets the action in a box, with walls the colour of a Magritte sky and sets of doors that lend an almost-farcical aspect to proceedings. The influence of Magritte does not stop with the sky; Sarastro’s cult members all sport bowler hats and coats very much akin to the famous surrealist painting – you know the one, where the man has an apple for a face.
In this box, Mozart’s divine music and Schikaneder’s amusing libretto (here presented in a superlative translation by Jeremy Sams, complete with rhyming couplets) combine to tell the story of a young Prince on a fairy-tale quest to save a Princess. From the opening moments, with a giant lobster trying to grab him with its claws and the arrival of the Three Women, the stage is set for a lot of fun. The Three Women (Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek, and Emma Carrington) are a collective hoot, and Cooke gives them plenty of comic business as they vie with each other over the unconscious Prince. Ben Johnson’s Prince Tamino is dashing and forthright, singing beautifully, as when he falls in love at first sight of Pamina’s portrait.
Stealing the show in every scene he’s in is Mark Stone, hilarious as the bird-catcher Papageno. In some productions, the dialogue scenes can be clunky and awkward, but in the hands of someone like Stone, they are a delight.
Soprano Anna Siminska is a powerful Queen of the Night. Her second, most famous aria brings the house down. Her oppo, high priest Sarastro, is her polar opposite. While Siminska hits her Top Fs with piercing accuracy, Jihoon Kim gets to his Bottom Fs, but could do with a bit more power behind them. Kim makes a striking figure as the cult leader; Sarastro’s rules for the way women ought to behave can seem problematic, but his solos are exceedingly beautiful.
Anita Watson makes a perfect fairy-tale princess as a heartfelt Pamina. Her aria when she believes Tamino is shunning her remains one of the most heartrending moments in any opera, and Watson delivers the goods impeccably.
This is a production that doesn’t get bogged down by the pomp (and pomposity) of Sarastro’s order, with plenty of laughs throughout, both from the script and from the direction. What happens when Tamino plays his flute or when Papageno plays his magic bells is charming and funny.
Inevitably, the star is Mozart. His music adds humour, pathos, and, yes, holiness to the characters in this quest for love. The opera is a plea for the end to hatred, for living in peace, a message that we need to hear in these nasty-minded times.