Magical Start to the 21st Longborough Opera Festival

12/06/2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Longborough Festival Opera, Gianluca Marcianò (conductor), Longborough, Gloucestershire, 9-16.6.2012. (RJ)

Cast:

Tamino Mario Sofroniou
Papageno Nicholas Merryweather
Queen of the Night Penelope Randall-Davis
Her Attendants Stephanie Corley, Miranda Westcott, Lise Christiansen
Monostatos Benjamin Segal
Pamina Elizabeth Donovan
Guardian Spirits Carleen Ebbs, Ayaka Tanimoto, Aino Konkka
The Orator Antoine Salmon
Sarastro Sasa Cano
Priests Jon Openshaw, Bradley Smith
Papagena Alice Rose Privett
Armed Men Edward Hughes, Dominic Sedgewick
Chorus Aurelia Jonvaux, Ian McFarlane

Production:

Woodland Animals Pupils from Longborough and Swell Primary Schools
Conductors Gianluca Marcianò, Lesley-Anne Sammons
Director Jenny Miller
Set Designer Sophie Mosberger
Lighting Designer Warren Letton
Costume Designer Hannah-Lauren Whitham
|Assistant Director Sophie Horton|
Orchestra Leader Katherine Gittings
Repetiteur Lesley-Anne Sammons

Nicholas Merryweather as Papageno; photo credit:Robert Workman

Longborough and its chairman Martin Graham are starting to get attention in the British press these days, and deservedly so. This country opera house, which started modestly in the early 1990s, has confounded the sceptics by keeping going without state subsidy, despite economic downturns and other crises that threaten to blow projects like this off track, and is now starting its twenty-first season. Furthermore, next summer the Festival will be putting on three complete Ring cycles, which means that British Wagnerians have no need to make a long trek to Bayreuth! In July one can get a foretaste of delights to come when Longborough mounts a new production of Götterdämmerung, but before that there are productions of Mozart and Janáček’s Katya Kabanova to enjoy.

The Magic Flute is the fourth collaboration between director Jenny Miller and conductor Gianluca Marcianò, so expectations were high. It was pleasing to note that the duo had re-engaged some of the singers who proved their worth in their earlier Mozart productions. I was also delighted to find children in the audience (and also on stage playing woodland animals), for if any opera is likely to appeal to the younger generation it is this one. The concept of enlightenment may be above their heads, but there’s no denying that the opera has elements of a ripping adventure story while characters like Papageno, Papagena and the Queen of the Night’s Attendants inject plenty of humour into the action.

The first set, designed by Sophie Mosberger, looked like an enormous all-seeing eye, but the programme notes indicate that this is a cosmic spiral or black hole representing the realm of the Queen of the Night. From her brief biography Penelope Randall-Davis appears to be in great demand in this role, and there was never any doubt that she would not hit the high notes and create a sense of unease. Her counterpart, the high priest Sarastro representing virtue and light, was sung by the dependable Sasa Cano whose rich bass voice and calm demeanour provided reassurance even when the going got tough for the main protagonists.

Elizbaeth Donovan as Pamina and Sasa-Cano as Sarastro; photo credit: Robert Workman

Mozart set his opera in Egypt and so would doubtless have been impressed by Mario Sofronio as Tamino who seemed the embodiment of an Egyptian prince despite having been born in the nearby town of Swindon. Possessing a fine voice he imbued the role with a great earnestness, and I sometimes wished he could relax a little more. Admittedly, if I were confronted with the dangerous trials he has to undertake, I might well feel differently. Elizabeth Donovan’s Pamina was the complete antithesis with a warm-hearted personality which shone through, especially in her duet with Papageno extolling the benefits of married life. Later when Tamino declines to speak to her (it is one of the tests he has to undertake) she became the tragic heroine as she contemplates suicide because of his apparent rejection of her – a dramatic and convincing sequence.

Fortunately, the guardian spirits intervened in the nick of time, as they do on a number of other occasions. Mozart envisaged these parts to be played by boys, but I felt having three experienced girl singers in the role added to the interest of the action; they were in no sense clones, but each had an individual personality and sang confidently and well. The Queen of the Night’s Attendants in their modern hairstyles also added greatly to the interest and humour in the opera.

I have left the best till last: Nicholas Merryweather’s Papageno. Emmanuel Schikaneder, the librettist of The Magic Flute, played this role in the first performance of the opera in Vienna and being a renowned comedian doubtless played it for laughs. Merryweather has a fine voice, as he demonstrated two years ago in the role of Don Giovanni at Longborough, but I had not expected him to have the clown-like qualities he showed at this performance. Most impressive of all was the way he engaged with the audience, who warmed to his many foibles. If the worst comes to the worst and the world economic crisis causes all the opera companies in Europe to fold, I predict a secure future for Mr Merryweather – as a pantomime dame.

I realise I have not said much about the music, but then one takes it for granted that it will be of a high standard at Longborough. Clearly Lesley-Anne Sammons has worked with her usual painstaking precision with the singers once again. Maestro Marcianò injected plenty of Italian flair into the score and the audience went away smiling. Could one ask for anything more?

More performances are scheduled for June 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th. Katya Kabanova will take to the stage on June 26th, 27th, 29th and 30th. Then comes Götterdämmerung on July 17th, 19th, 22nd and 24th. Finally on July 28th and 29th there will be a Young Artists’ production of Sweeney Todd.

Roger Jones

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