United Kingdom Mozart: The Magic Flute: English Touring Opera and Orchestra / James Southall (conductor), Northcott Theatre, Exeter, 14.5.2014
Sung in English (libretto translation by Jeremy Sams)
Tamino – Ashley Catling (tenor)
Papageno – Wyn Pencarreg (baritone)
Pamina – Anna Patalong (soprano)
Queen of the Night – Samantha Hay (soprano)
Sarastro – Andrew Slater (bass)
Speaker – Piotr Lempa (bass)
Three Ladies – Camilla Roberts (soprano) , Amy J Payne (mezzo soprano), Susan Moore (contralto)
Monostatos – Stuart Haycock (tenor)
Two Priests – Henry Manning (baritone), Simon Gfeller (tenor)
Papagena – Caryl Hughes (soprano)
Two Armoured Men – Adam Tunnicliffe (tenor), Maciek O’Shea (bass)
Three Boys – Abigail Kelly, Emily-Jane Thomas, Laura Kelly
Liam Steel (director)
James Hurley (revival director)
Chloe Lamford (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)
I always look forward to seeing the Engish Touring Opera productions when the company visits the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, and their revival of The Magic Flute more than fulfilled my expectations. The production is slick and imaginative, carefully planned to show both the many amusing and blatantly funny aspects of the story as well as the darker, more sinister ones of Rosicruciamism, a form of mystical Christian Freemasonry to which Mozart had become committed. Mention has to be made of the set – a prize could be on offer for the correct answer to the question “just how many trap doors are there in this set?” The dark panelled doors, floor and walls are so neatly designed to fulfil their dual role as touring opera sets to fit all the theatres as well as providing innumerable doors, trap doors and mini trap doors to facilitate the action in the production. In addition, a novel approach was the sliding two-way mirrors in a picture frame high up at the back of the stage. Lighting effects, including the various standard lamps (perhaps garnered from raids on second hand furniture shops) augment another scene.
Conductor James Southall and the ETO Orchestra provided a nicely-paced performance. One could not help thinking that this smallish touring band, compared with bigger orchestras with larger string strengths performing in permanent opera houses, would perhaps have been more typical of the orchestra used in Mozart’s era.
The production showed the fun side of the story with the Welsh brogue of the admirable Wyn Pencarreg’s portrayal of Papageno, dressed more as a Twentyfirst century contemporary game keeper with tweed breeks, and looking as if he were well used to striding round pheasant pens, rather than just being the “bird catcher” for his boss! Pencarreg played Papageno with lots of character – as a wily countryman with a touch of naïvity about the opposite sex – not overplayed, but certainly getting some sympathetic laughs along the way. Caryl Hughes, as Papagena, was hilarious and was a kind of Dr Bartolo crossed with “Bubbles” from Absolutely Fabulous. These two really stole the show at the end.
The Three Ladies were consistently very stylish and well drilled, singing and performing immaculately – almost like members of a Broadway musical cast. Similar remarks could apply to the Three Boys – dressed somewhat eccentrically in skirts like lampshades in the second act.
Mozart’s opera is not just about staging, production and humour. The Magic Flute contains some of his most sublime arias and the cast more than did justice to these. Samantha Hay was a dramatic and beautiful Queen of the Night, wearing a spectacular outfit, with a huge bright blue “train” of gossamer which spread around her and covered most of the stage adding to the effect of her famous coloratura aria. Andrew Slater was convincing as Sarastro, with his bass voice and regal presence..
There were amusing moments: the wine bottle coming up from a tiny door in the middle of the stage, the lampshades indicating the form of a woman for Papageno, and the “Conga” dance with its somewhat sinister undertones. The undercurrent of Freemasonry ran through this production, coming to the fore sometimes, but it was always there.
The Exeter audience enjoyed this performance very much indeed – and so did I!