ETO’s Magic Flute Puts Major Opera Houses to Shame

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera. Hackney Empire, London, 7.3.2014 (MB)


The Magic Flute - Mozart - English Touring Opera - The Hackney Empire - 7th March 2014
The Magic Flute – Mozart – English Touring Opera – The Hackney Empire – 7th March 2014

(sung in English, as The Magic Flute)

Tamino – Ashley Catling
Papageno – WynPencarreg
Pamina – Anna Patalong
Queen of the Night – Samantha Hay
Sarastro – Andrew Slater
Speaker – Piotr Lempa
Three Ladies – Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne, Helen Johnson
Monostatos – Stuart Haycock
Two Priests – Henry Manning, Simon Gfeller
Papagena – Caryl Hughes
Two Armoured Men – Adam Tunnicliffe, Maciek O’Shea
Three Boys – Abigail Kelly, Emily-Jane Thomas, Laura Kelly

Liam Steel (director)
James Hurley (revival director)
Chloe Lamford (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)

I find myself running out of superlatives to describe the work of English Touring Opera. From what is now a good number of performances of different works, I have attended, I have only had one bad experience – a better proportion than with pretty much any other company. More to the point, though one cannot but consider the shoestring operation, the extraordinary endeavour of bringing opera to towns that would otherwise have none whatsoever, one actually need make no allowances whatsoever. It is a splendid thing to stage works such as Promised End and King Priam, and to stage them so well, but it is perhaps a taller order still to perform a work such as The Magic Flute, whether in London or elsewhere, and in many ways to put both Covent Garden and ENO to shame.

 I certainly cannot think of a single instance in which ENO’s staging earlier this season proved preferable to this. Where a series of Complicité clichés added up to considerably less than the sum of their whole, here Liam Steel’s production, revived by James Hurley, offers a relatively straightforward, yet far from unimaginative, retelling of the work, engaging with it rather than taking it is an opportunity to do much the same as one might have done with any other piece. Chloe Lamford’s set, which will have to do service on a good number of stages of very different sizes, remains constant in each scene, yet its eighteenth-century presents various opportunities not only for the action to fill it out on stage, but for our minds to make connections between ourselves and the historical period we ourselves imagine. We are enabled rather than dictated to; we ask questions rather than have dubious answers, or more likely evasions, foisted upon us.

 Just as in 1791, there is trap-door theatricality, but again, just as in Mozart’s time, there is great seriousness too: the order remains mysterious, as it should, rather than being reduced to a gang of Scientologists, or whoever we may be. But Sarastro’s leadership is in no sense unambiguously a good thing. Without – apparently – exaggerating, and without, indeed, adding anything that is not in the text (and let us remember, for the last time, that ‘the text’ includes music as much as words), we feel his cruelty and the very real ambiguities of the work’s presentation of ‘good’ and ‘evil’: a matter of experience, including ours, not of unfounded, frankly ludicrous, conspiracy theories concerning the authorship of the libretto.The Overture, scenically as well as musically, offers us a ‘way in’, a party framing the events to come, whether in Tamino’s head or otherwise, a conga metamorphosing into the serpent that would slay him. We play, as we wish, with a world of fantasy and imagination, and much of the work is ours to do. It is not perfect; I have to go back to AchimFreyer’s celebrated circus-staging for Salzburg to recall a production that satisfied me completely – and even there, my memory may be playing tricks with me – but, oddities such as the presentation of the Three Boys (here played by women) as mechanical dolls aside, there is much to praise and little at which to quibble. Even in that case, the integrative resourcefulness of employing lampshades from the room as their costumes merits a commendation.

 The orchestra sounded excellent throughout, beguiling woodwind in particular. James Southall’s conducting was generally convincing, and often rather more than that, great sensitivity being displayed at many of the grander and more intimate moments. Mannered double-dotting in the Overture and a breackneck speed at the end of the first act were exceptions – and, by the standards of today, moderate ones at that. In Ashley Catling and Anna Patalong we had a sweet-toned Tamino and Pamina, credible on stage as well as of voice (though, in a rare miscalculation from the production, we have a little too much of them kissing, in a move that merely sentimentalises). Andrew Slater’s conflicted Sarastro made an excellent mark, as did Samantha Hay’s truly excellent Queen of the Night: quite the best I have heard since Diana Damrau. The Three Ladies were a splendid trio, no mere cyphers, but flesh and blood individuals: Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne, and Helen Johnson deserved great credit for their portrayals. So do their counterparts as the Three Boys: Abigail Kelly, Emily-Jane Thomas, and Laura Kelly. It was difficult not to miss the sound of trebles here, but that is presumably a consideration of touring. WynPencarreg’s spirited Papageno showed himself alert to the sadness as well as to the high spirits, and Caryl Hughes made a perfect foil for him, insofar as the brevity of her role permitted. The Speaker (Piotr Lempa), his Priests (Henry Manning and Simon Gfeller), and the Two Armoured – please, not ‘Armed’ – Men (Adam Tunnicliffe and Maciek O’Shea) all offered gravity and yet also humanity, a balance in keeping both with work and staging. Stuart Haycock’s Monostatos was sharply observed, making the most of his words. If I were to carp, I might point to the smallness of the chorus, but in so estimable a performance, who cares? Above all, there was a true sense of company, an increasingly rare thing today, but which augurs very well for the trials of touring to come.

Mark Berry