Tag Archives: The Magic FLute

Bells and Whistle

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.

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Tamino (Ben Johnson) finds his lobster undercooked (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 

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If you’ve got it, flautist

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Stafford Castle, Stafford, Sunday 2nd July, 2017

 

Heritage Opera’s production comes to Stafford Castle for one night only – the grounds are set up for the annual Shakespeare production; this year it’s The Tempest and so there is rather a nautical theme to the design.  Add to this, the reduced size of the orchestra (only seven of them!) and there is a rehearsal feel to this scaled-down sound.  Not that players and singers don’t give their all – and the sound quality is excellent, even with the constant drone of the nearby M6 forever in our ears.

The Tempest set is not a bad fit, given that high priest Sarastro is much like Prospero; the Queen of the Night, Sycorax; and Monostatos is very Caliban-like in this production!  The Three Boys are here replaced by three Spirits – in excellent, imaginative mermaid garb.

Tenor Nicholas Sales is a robust Tamino, the heroic prince and is well-matched with Aimee-Louise Toshney’s princess-in-distress Pamina.  Sarah Helsby Hughes is a strident Queen with a fabulous crown of feathers (I’d been wondering what she does with her daily delivery of birds) while Philip Barton’s Sarastro looks like Matt Berry playing Willy Wonka – but sounds divine.  It’s all about the bass.  The Three Ladies are equally delightful (Heather Heighway, Serenna Wagner, Helen-Anne Gregory) – amazons in straw hats, bringing humour to the action and beauty to the harmonies.  Roger Hanke’s wicked Monostatos is also good fun, a cross between Kermit the Frog and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  But it is Francis Church’s birdman, Papageno that wins our hearts.  Church makes the best of the sometimes clunky ‘banter’ and his rich baritone is warm and pleasing.

Mozart crammed the show with catchy melodies and beautiful harmonies, with plenty of chances to showcase the main characters.  The Queen hits her top F, Sarastro his bottom one.  Everything that happens in between is aural perfection.  Except when they’re not singing.  The libretto between the musical numbers is hampered by a duff plot (it starts so promisingly with the death of a serpent, and a quest to rescue an abducted princess) riddled with po-faced quasi-masonic blether.  Thank goodness for Francis Church – and for Eleanor Strutt as his intended, Papagena.  Their eventual duet is a joy.

There are moments when the production could do with a bigger sound – the keyboard can’t make up for the absence of brass at key moments – but there are some lovely ideas that add wit to proceedings, like Papageno pushing a pram with an egg in it, and the animals gathering to hear the magical flute are fun if few and far between.

An enjoyable evening of fresh air and Mozart sounding as fresh as ever.  I look forward to more Heritage Opera productions in the future.

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Publicity material for Heritage Opera’s The Magic Flute

 

 


Housebound

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 17th March, 2014 

 

To the infectious strains of the bustling overture, courtiers in evening dress play out scenes of drunkenness and indulgence.  One figure stands out.  Not only does he not join in, he is trapped and seeking an escape.

So begins English Touring Opera’s production of Mozart’s final work for the stage.  Whenever I see this piece, I look forward to the opening.  How will they do the serpent (or ‘monster’) that is chasing the Prince?  I’ve seen puppets.  I’ve seen a man in a kind of Godzilla costume.  Here, director Liam Steel opts for a very human giant snake, a conga line of courtiers that back Tamino against a wall.  It’s symbolic of his desire to quit the hedonistic lifestyle that threatens to consume him.  I think.

The fariytale story is played out on a set with three levels and lots of doors.  It’s like a darkened room in a stately home – a haunted house: hands pop up through little trapdoors to bring on a range of props, like Thing in The Addams Family.  The set fits some parts of the story better than others.  The scene where Tamino summons woodland creatures loses its magic when its just the courtiers in masquerade.  The Queen of the Night steps through a large mirror and fills the stage with the train of her dress in a spectacular moment but at other times the action seems confined by its interior-ness, and too housebound.  Also, the raised levels of the stage seem to amplify every footfall – it’s very noisy.

Nicholas Sharratt is a dependable Tamino and there is enjoyable interplay between him and Wyn Penacregg’s Papageno.  The first act is a lot of fun.  The Queen’s three ladies (Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne, Helen Johnson) camp it up nicely in contrast with the staid and pompous goings on in the Temple during the second act.  With spoken dialogue rather than recitative, it soon becomes apparent who are the stronger actors.

As bird-catcher Papageno, Wyn Penacregg is a constant delight, using his Welsh accent to support the comedy of his lines.  His duet with Pamina (Anna Patalong) is just lovely, and both arias by Laure Meloy’s Queen are highlights.  Under the baton of Michael Rosewell, the orchestra plays spiritedly, although I feel the scene where Papgeno contemplates suicide is a little rushed.  The most beautiful moment is the achingly poignant aria by Pamina, when she can’t understand why Tamino won’t speak to her (he’s being tested, you see, as part of the initiation into a kind of masonic cult).  Anna Patalong is heartbreakingly good here.

Andrew Slater’s Sarastro, the cult leader, is competent, like a stern uncle, but doesn’t get the hairs on your neck stirring with his big bass moments – and I think that’s symptomatic of the production as a whole.  It’s well presented and performed but lacks that spark of magic to enchant us and help us overlook the ropeyness of Schikaneder’s plot.

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