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The Magic Flute

by on 25 May 2023

Trills without Frills

The Magic Flute

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder

Harrow Opera at the Compass Theatre, Ickenham until 28th May

Review by Michelle Hood

Perhaps one of the most popular and frequently performed opera ever written, The Magic Flute can never really fail to excite because of the sheer beauty of its music.  A timeless classic and, despite its abstract and allegorical storyline, the imaginative brilliance of the score always uplifts and stimulates. 

Mozart’s masterpiece was premiered in Vienna in September 1791 and yet, just two months later, Mozart died prematurely aged 35.  This was the only opera ever written by Mozart for a popular audience in which he collaborated with a well-known comic actor of the time, Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto and also played the part of Papageno in the first production. 

Given the complex fantasy world in which The Magic Flute exists, the opera has been staged in countless imaginative ways and in many different time periods and costume.  In this production, by Harrow Opera at the Compass Theatre, Ickenham, no liberties have been taken and the production is stripped back to its basic essentials, and is also sung in English.   

There is just a bare set, a grand piano in the pit and the rest is brought to life by the excellent vocal range of a strong cast of players.  Music Director, Ezra Williams commands his troops with skill and energy as he enthusiastically encourages them through the well-loved score. 

The first act was stolen by the two arias of the Queen of the Night, played by Katerina Oikonomou, which were perfectly executed by her glass-shattering range and put across with the confidence of a high soprano who knows she’s belting out a show-stopper.  She was ably supported by the Three Ladies (Helen-Julie Johnson, Suzanna Perry and Marianne Wentzel) with their voices resonating in delightful harmony. 

The two lovers, Prince Tamino (Stephen McNealy) and Pamina (Adrienne Walters), after a rather shaky start, gained in their confidence, with fine singing voices (tenor and soprano respectively), with a growing chemistry in their scenes together.  Pamina’s hurt was almost palpable in her Act Two lament, full of anguish and subtlety, with every note bearing its weight of pathos.

Of course, Luke Reader’s rustic Papageno is at the heart of this production, as we follow his journey toward earthly fulfilment.  His rendition toward the end, together with Papagena (Mehreen Shah), of the famous “pa-pa-ge-na – pa-pa-ge-no” was a sheer delight.  He also provided a fine balance between the art of acting and the art of singing.

The bass role, the regal Sarastro, was played majestically by Richard Perry, displaying a quiet authority to great effect with his fine strong voice.  A mention also to a nicely observed performance from Stephen Roe as Monostatos, and to the three boys, who in this production became The Three Spirits (Saskia Jamieson Bibb, Celeste Handford and Judith Thei).  A word also goes to a hardworking and effective chorus.  Incidentally, it should be noted that there are two casts, although some parts retain the same actor in all productions. 

Be it a pantomime or a simple fairy story, with its magic flute and bells, or even a love story, this modest production, with stage direction by Jessica Dalton, allowed the audience to concentrate on the beauty of the music and the quality of the vocals without the distraction of over-elaborate staging.  Equally, the use of a single piano allowed us to fully engage with the simple, yet complex, intricacies of the music – or, putting it another way, to enjoy all those really catchy tunes.   

Finally, much to reflect on.  What effect did Mozart’s involvement with freemasonry have on the opera? Certainly, the work carries symbols of the ideals of freemasonry such as virtue, love and wisdom.  Then there’s the use of the mysterious number three – the three powerful opening chords of the overture, the three ladies, the three boys and even the three magical instruments – flute, glockenspiel and panpipe – and even the three bells painted on the glockenspiel.  Also the stage, while largely bare, was only dressed with hanging white sheets of different sizes – in fact, three at either side of the stage.   

This was a simple retelling of an operatic masterpiece, without frills and bells, which allowed the audience to appreciate the basic mechanics of this fine work.

Michelle Hood, May 2023

Photography courtesy of Kupferstichkabinett, image by Karl Friedrich Schinkel

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