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Out of the Dragon’s Den: The Magic Flute

by on 22 November 2016

The Magic Flute

by W.A. Mozart

Richmond Opera at the Normansfield Theatre, Teddington. Until 20th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Silk and satin, cotton and rags, colour, lights, action! So much was put into Richmond Opera’s recent inclusive production of The Magic Flute in Teddington’s opulent museum-piece small theatre at Normansfield.

This singspiel is always presented as a multi-layered extravaganza that is all things to all people.  Mozart himself conducted the first performance of what was to be his last opera, just over two months before his death.  His main librettist (and producer and designer) Emanuel Schikaneder, who even built the Freihaus Theater auf der Wieden where The Magic Flute was premiered in the suburbs of Vienna, played the part of Papagano.  Instead of an Italian language opera seria for the aristocrats, The Magic Flute was intended to be a German-language fun piece for the community.  Thus with Richmond Opera’s production.

Musical director, Lindsay Bramley conducted her enthusiastic 25 piece orchestra with a dynamism that was at one whimsical and folksy but melodic and soaringly beautiful: the music that is Mozart at his playful best.

Schikaneder’s serpent that insinuated its way through the auditorium at the end of the overture was a colourful four-child-power Chinese dragon. Our fearfully fainting hero, Tamino, is soon recued by Three Ladies, tunefully sung and vigorously acted by Jane Anghelatos, Ursula Block, and Kate Cleeland, who, we soon see, so much have the hots for him that they argue who is to leave and report back to the boss, The Queen of the Night, on their find.

Tamino, their prize, is an Egyptian prince travelling afar to find his love. The ladies have just the person in mind, Pamina, the daughter of the Queen, who is imprisoned by Sarastro, the High Priest of the Temple of Isis and Osiris.  Tamino, perhaps rashly, swears to free her.

The Queen of Night is an iconic role and everyone waits for her famous virtuoso arias. Sue Corrigan was regal and full of malevolent power in this role, and sang impressively, effortlessly hitting those infamous top-Fs.  Equally impressive was Tony Moss’s Sarastro.  Moss has a commanding stage presence, a rich bass voice, and looked resplendent in his golden robes.  These contrasted brilliantly with the Queen’s midnight blue, thanks to an imaginative costume design by Kate Cleeland (although I was a little doubtful about some of the footwear.)

Andrew Evans, as Tamino, had a splendid tenor voice, resonant at the lower end of his register, and bright at the higher end. Tamino’s determination and impetuosity was not very obvious, however, and he could have been more fired-up when he eventually meets with Pamina, although his duet with Andrienne Walters as Pamina, when they sing that “the law of God is love for man and wife” was very appealing. Walters has a lovely soprano voice and, in her aria when she is perplexed that Tamino cannot speak to her, her delivery of the phrasing expressing her pain was beautifully aching.

Much of the fun in The Magic Flute comes from the bird-catcher, Papagano, whom we first see after the slaying of the monstrous dragon.  Papagano takes the credit for the salvation of Tamino when he revives the prince, a whopper for which the Three Ladies padlock his mouth.  However, this does not stop him humming his way into their quintet which finishes with Tamino being given the eponymous flute and Papagano a set of bells to help them find their respective loves.  Unfortunately they must carry out various labours … the source of a lot of the fun.  Baritone, Luke Reader, in suitably ornithological costume, was an enjoyable and entertaining Papagano, and his easy energy made a very likable and sympathetic character.   Singing that he all he needs is a loving maiden or little woman for his wife, he remembers the bells.  These summon an old woman, but he says the right things, and she transmogrifies into his true love, Papagena.  Soprano, Christine Dencer was captivating in this role, lithe and gamine, with a bell-like voice, she enchanted the audience almost as much as she enchanted Papagano. The well-known “papa-papa” duet was huge fun.

The all people to whom The Magic Flute has become all things, have over time included historians (The Queen = Maria Theresa, Tamino the people of Austria), mathematicians (Golden Ratios and Fibonacci Series in the music) and Freemasons, whose rituals appear in various guises in the opera.  Certainly Tamino and Papagano both have to go through initiation ceremonies and various ritualistic tasks before obtaining their goals (notably their respective wives).  In fact, under the fun in this singspiel are hidden many dark themes, including complex confabulations of good and evil (which is which, The Queen or Sarastro?).  The ritual makers included The Speaker (dignified Peter Brown, who has a satisfyingly robust bass voice); the would-be rapist, Monostratus who should represent evil (Steve Harrison, in this role, was regretfully ineffectual and largely inaudible); and the three spirits.  Helena Carlin, Elizabeth Prabhakar, and Catherine McManus, kooky rather than spooky spirits, made a delightful diversion from the darker moments of the plot.

The set and lighting design (Lyn Keay and Simon Pike respectfully) particularly came to the fore in the ritual scenes, making full use of LED-lit slit-drape, follow spots and colour changers, all non-intrusive additions to the splendour of the Normansfield setting.

The children who we initially saw as the dragon’s feet, and made a later appearance as fidgeting asteroids in attendance to the starry Queen of the Night, rather pulled the focus in the final scenes. They should have represented the ideal Papa’ family but their lack of control would have been a contraceptive to any potential parents.  Nevertheless, the finale was a joyous paean to the power of love and wisdom to which singers and the magnificent orchestra gave their all.

Richmond Opera gave its infectious enthusiasm to the heterogeneity of this Pandora’s box of an piece, with its multiple roots in fairy tale, pantomime, Masonic shenanigans, humour and musical legerdemain: all the fun of the fair that is The Magic Flute.

 Mark Aspen

November 2016



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