Welsh National Opera 2018-19 Review: The Magic Flute
A Refreshing And Fun Presentation For The Whole FamilyBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Bill Cooper)
Having seen Graham Vick’s joyless production of “The Magic Flute” at last year’s Macerata Festival, which amounted to little more than a heavy-handed political rant, how refreshing and restorative it was to watch Welsh National Opera’s light, amusing and wholly positive production.
Certainly, the work, probably more than most, is open to a variety of interpretations given its peculiar narrative and arcane symbolism, in which good and bad do not always conform to our present day sensibilities, but Mozart’s music is life-affirming, joyous, and uplifting, and must surely be the starting point for any director. While this does not preclude an exploration of the opera’s problematic themes, it is something that needs to be handled carefully, to ensure the spirit of the opera is not crushed by directorial hubris.
Moving Away From Controversy
The director for this production, Dominic Cooke, veered away from confronting any of the work’s underlying and, in some instances, controversial themes, opting instead for an interpretation which clarified the narrative, and unashamedly took every possible opportunity to highlight the comedy which threads its way through the work.
It was a successful approach which kept the audience thoroughly entertained, including the numerous young children in attendance, which is no bad thing in itself, given the current age profile of many opera audiences. Barely a scene was allowed to pass without something which had everyone smiling or laughing, whether it was Tamino being attacked by a giant lobster in the opening scene, the appearance of the three boys on a mechanical flying machine, or the exaggerated costumes of the wild beasts.
Yet, at the same time the central element of the tale, Tamino’s search for wisdom and personal enlightenment, was clearly drawn, and was combined with the comedy to produce a well-paced and pleasing presentation.
The shoe-box set which has received a certain amount of criticism for being too compact and too small on larger stages was nicely suited to Llandudno‘s Theatre Cymru’s smaller stage. Designed by Julian Crouch the set consisted of three sky blue walls with three doors in each, through which the cast would appear and disappear. Occasionally the back wall would rise to change its depth, or to allow for a dramatic entrance, as in the case of the Queen of the Night, who appears out of the mist. It was all very simple, but also effective. The defining aesthetic was deliberately given a surreal coating with references to Dali, hence the lobster, and Magritte, with Sarastro’s followers sporting bowler hats and umbrellas, as well the sky blue colouring of the set.
The costumes, designed by Kevin Pollard, were colorful and largely as expected, at least as far as that is possible for an opera set in an unspecified time period, in an unknown setting, with magical elements: the Queen of the Night in a luxurious, long, dark, sequinned dress; Papageno in a rustic, feathery coat, brown trousers, green hat and green boots, carrying bird cages; the three ladies dressed as maids in 19th century attire and so on. They successfully complemented each other, whilst at the same time reinforcing the impression that this is a world which transcends, yet at the same time is firmly connected to our reality. They were also fun.
Solid Interpretations Abound
Ben Johnson playing the role of the aristocratic Tamino produced a solid, if conservative performance. Although this worked to his advantage when obediently submitting to Sarastro’s trials during Act two, in the first act it made him appear somewhat colorless. He has a pleasing sounding tenor, and was vocally secure, but did not develop the character sufficiently in Act one.
Anita Watson playing the role of Pamina produced a fine performance, in which her bright, clear and well-projected soprano captured the innocence of the character. Her aria, “Ach ich fuhl’s, es ist verschwunden,” displayed Watson’s skill in characterization, in which deeply saddened, she enveloped her lines with a sorrowful lilt, adorned with subtle ornamentations, believing that Tamino no longer loved her.
The role of Papageno is not a demanding part, at least not from a singing perspective, but it does require an actor with a good sense of comic timing, and Mark Stone was superb in the part. He has a real talent for comedy; his gestures and pacing were precise and finely judged, his diction clear, intoned with just the right amount of self-deprecation, and he had the audience laughing along. Moreover, he managed to capture the audience’s sympathy, so that it was also happy when he finally finds his Papagena. He has a suitably warm baritone, and sang well, highlighting the humour and sympathetic nature of his character through intelligent phrasing.
Papagena was played by Claire Hampton, whose transition from an old crone to a youthful and fresh-faced beauty was convincing, although her use of a heavy Yorkshire accent was a little distracting. Her duet with Papagena, “Pa, Pa, Pa…” is certainly one of the operas frothy musical highlights, and was dispatched with the necessary lightness, brio and sense of fun, and delighted the entire audience.
Darkness & Light
Samantha Hay in the role of the Queen of the Night, sang well and performed the two stratospheric arias, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” and “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” admirably. Her singing had a crystal clarity, which sparkled in the higher register. Her presentation of the second displayed greater focus, confidence and more energy, in which she nailed the coloratura with pinpoint accuracy, which is not to suggest that the first disappointed.
The Three Ladies comprising, soprano, Jennifer Davies, mezzo-sopranos, Kezia Bienek and Emma Carrington, all put in strong performances, and as a group complemented each other well. They were a sexually aggressive bunch, who did not attempt to hide their lascivious desires, but it was all played tongue in cheek, and generated knowing laughter.
James Platt has a wonderfully full-sounding, dark bass, with rounded vowel sounds, and was ideally cast in the role of Sarastro. The aria, “O Isis und Osiris, schenket der Wander Geist” was firmly and strongly delivered, his voice awash with dark colors, against a soft choral background. Moreover, with his large stature and big black beard he also looked the part, as he projected a calm control over the proceedings.
Howard Kirk put in a good performance as Monostatos, who he turned from an unpleasant brute, who abuses his position in Sarastro’s service into a comic book “baddie,” or a Keystone Kops’ villain, which fitted in well with Cooke’s overall light approach.
Phillip Rhodes gave a strong performance in the roles of the Speaker and Second Priest. His robust baritone possesses a very pleasing timbre, which he projected with force and clarity, successfully capturing the authority of his position.
The conductor, Damian Iorio, elicited a workman-like performance from the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, and accomplished what needed to be done, despite occasional imbalances in the sound from the pit. The balance between the orchestra and the singers was always under control.
The chorus of Welsh national Opera sang to its usual high standards, and were very much involved in the comedy. As followers of Sarastro, dressed in orange suits, with orange bowler hats, their heads popped up from below the stage, using their orange umbrellas to vote on Tamino’s progress.
Overall, it was simple, it was clear, it was fun and, moreover, it was a “Magic Flute” for the whole family. Often it is an opera which is billed as such, but rarely does it deliver, with directors too determined to uncover the hidden and not so hidden meanings within the work, or in some cases (and here Graham Vick again springs to mind), meanings which do not even exist.
Cooke’s production was first staged in 2005, and has experienced frequent revivals. Yet, rather than being tired or dated, it still has the energy to engage the audience, 15 years later.