Nevill Holt’s remarkably innovative Magic Flute begins a much expanded Festival programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nevill Holt Festival 2024 – Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Britten Sinfonia / Finnegan Downie Dear (conductor). Nevill Holt, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, 1.6 2024. (CP)

Archie White (Dancer), Martins Smaukstelis (Tamino), Thea Kallhed Möller (Dancer), and Olivia Warburton (Pamina) © Manuel Harlan

Director and Designer – Melly Still
Assistant director – Poppy Franziska
Associate designer – Olivia Walters
Lighting designer – Azusa Ono
Sound designer – Jon Nicholls
Choreography (alphabetically) – Poppy Franziska, Saskia Faye Larcombe, Thea Kallhed, Möller, Melly Still, Archie White

Tamino – Martins Smaukstelis
Papageno – Jonathan Eyers
Queen of the Night – Nazan Fikret
Pamina – Olivia Warburton
Monostatos – Simon Sumal
Sarastro – Allen Michael Jones
Papagena – Jasmine Flicker
First Lady – Isabelle Peters
Second Lady – Aina Miyagi Magnell
Third Lady – Angharad Lyddon
Speaker / Second Armed Man – Malachy Frame
Priest / First Armed Man – Magnus Walker

Something very special is happening at Nevill Holt this year. Opening night of The Magic Flute was a triumph, setting a high standard for this year’s quite remarkable Festival scheduled to run until Wednesday 26 June. With thirty-two players of the Britten Sinfonia sparing no effort to reproduce Mozart’s great variety of orchestral colour under the baton of Finnegan Downie Dear, the six performances of the opera will be a highlight of the season. In an opera called The Magic Flute the flute should be the most important instrument and plaudits must be heaped on Thomas Hancox for the consistency of his playing. The Leader of the Sinfonia deserves special mention for achieving coherent playing by the strings, most notably in the crispness of the overture. Director, Melly Still confirmed in her pre-concert talk there had been no cuts musically, she had been faithful to the literal text hoping for an excitingly nuanced production. This she certainly achieved! From that crisply played overture, the early use of the scrim-like strings falling from the ceiling (frequently serving to support the fluidity of the set) plus the encouraging debuts of young people on stage and backstage, this production is the reward for much hard work by the production team.

Students of Mozart’s work refer to the composer’s use of the principles of Freemasonry; Melly Still’s interpretation uses the fairy-tale world with an underlying morality play of human integrity surfacing at times. The cryptic number three, the symbol of self-revealing divinity plays an important part in Masonic rites is represented in this production by threes of everything – those three powerful opening chords, three dancers, three attendants to the Queen of the Night (Nazan Fikret) and three Genii who demand WISDOM, REASON and NATURE of Tamino (a prince in search of meaning) and Papageno (a bird catcher in search of love). Mozart completed the work in 1791 at the end of the Age of Enlightenment, a movement strongly influenced by religious conflicts following the Reformation. In their initiation trials to secure their entry into the Temple of Wisdom, Tamino who wishes to marry the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, steadfastly adheres to the rule of silence. However, Papageno struggles to accept the advice to prove himself. In time, his glockenspiel playing magic bells of his musical box persuade the bird catching Papagena to emerge.

Archie White (Dancer), Jonathan Eyers (Papageno), Saskia Faye-Larcombe (Dancer), and Thea Kallhed Möller (Dancer) © Manuel Harlan

As Queen of the Night, Nazan Fikret is very familiar with the Mozart role having previously sung it with Glyndebourne, Wexford and Garsington. Anchoring the performance with confident delivery, using her remarkable stage presence, she comfortably negotiated her aria as a suffering mother – her only daughter Pamina having been stolen from her. Olivia Warburton singing Pamina is light on her feet, portraying the role energetically and with careful articulation in her search for freedom. As Tamino, Martins Smaukstelis is well cast and shows the necessary emotions as he undertakes the series of tests before being received in the Temple. Jonathon Eyers performance as Papageno received the wildest applause for his exploits to gain the attention of Papagena (Jasmine Flicker). His panpipe’s five calling tones is an exotic sound which expresses the nature of the role. Bass Allen Michael Jones’s reputation will be enhanced by an exceptional effort in his role as Sarastro, the antagonist of the Queen of the Night: his kidnapping of Pamina being the result of their long-lasting rivalry.  His strong performance reaches some of the very deepest tones of the bass vocal range. He deserves praise for his balance of exuberance with discretion.

A talented ensemble supported these frontline performances and there is also a very strong chorus led by Finnegan Downie Dear in the pit where members of the Britten Sinfonia produced some wonderfully lyrical themes, showing great urgency in their outputs when needed. Their efforts were well supported by lighting and sound designers whose clever plots and exciting use of many disparate elements added to the exhilarating experience. This production zipped along at a brisk pace with the fluidity of the set an asset.

Stephanie Greenslade had a field day with her costume designs, some very striking, some exotic, some verging on the outrageous and all put to good use to build an experience which Director, Melly Still wants to be ‘enchanting and deeply engaging’. This production is just that and is deserving of packed houses for the remaining performances.

Nevill Holt’s ambitious multi-arts Festival with six performances of The Magic Flute, concert performances by Benjamin Grosvenor and Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, War Horse with Michael Morpurgo, concert recitals by Sarah Connolly with Imogen Cooper and Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton, plus jazz, contemporary music, a host of interviews, comedy and visual arts is a big undertaking by Guest Festival Director, James Dacre. Founding Patron, David Ross seeks a more accessible, more diverse event as this first year initiative. Bookings so far indicate 75% will be first-timers at Nevill Holt! That is some achievement.

Clive Peacock

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