White Horse Opera do ‘The Magic Flute’

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On Wednesday I went to the opening night of White Horse Opera’s much anticipated run of ‘The Magic Flute’, directed by Chrissie Higgs, at Lavington School.

Mozart’s ‘singspiel’ style opera, with libretto by his friend Emanuel Shikaneder, was first performed in Vienna in 1791.  It’s a classic fairy tale and love story in which boy gets girl, baddies get their comeuppance, and everyone else lives happily ever after.  It is also a profound and potted lesson in the initiatory processes and philosopy of the Freemasons, the brotherhood to which both Mozart and his librettist belonged, and the symbols of which permeate the work.

Prince Tamino, a fine upstanding lad of good character, and his flighty friend Papageno, the bird-catcher, having escaped the clutches of a serpent, are given a flute and a set of magical bells by three strange ladies and guided by three spirits (threes being a recurring theme throughout) to the castle and temples of Sarastro, High Priest of the Sun, in order to rescue the Queen of the Night’s daughter Pamina, with whom Tamino has fallen in love.  Along the way it becomes clear that all is not as it appears to be, and that they and the wholesome Pamina will have to undergo certain trials (of silence, fire, and water) in order to achieve (with differing degrees of success) true love and enlightenment.

‘The Magic Flute’ has a complex and varied musical score that showcases the genius of Mozart himself and the ability of any orchestra or company that performs it.  Musical Director Roland Melia’s superb nine-piece orchestra handled the material faultlessly from the wonderful overture (with all its hints of things to come) through numerous changes of mood and musical style to the end.  There’s real talent among the singers in this company, and great praises on this occasion are certainly due to the imperious Queen of the Night, Barbara Gompels, who hit the high Fs in her challenging coloratura soprano aria without a hint of screech; also to Lisa House as Pamina, for the consistent quality of her sweet and powerful voice in her duets and aria; talented young tenor Matthew Bawden (especially in the light of the fact that he only stepped in to Tamino’s shoes a couple of weeks ago); the ever-reliable Jonathan Paget for his feckless but loveable Papageno; and Charles Leeming as Mayor and High Priest Sarastro, for his imposing presence, low F, and booming bass.

The whole cast stepped up to the mark vocally, individually and in chorus (if there was a bum note I certainly didn’t hear it), and in the main (wake up a bit, you lads at the back!) the acting was good.   The trios of ladies and spirits were lively and amusing (great character acting from Chrissie Higgs and others), good support was given by ‘Councillor’ Ian Diddams, Stephen Grimshaw as the dodgy Monostratos was suitably creepy, and Papagena (Bryony Cox) and Papageno’s vibrant and unexpected little duet at the end of Act Two was a sheer delight.

Also to be commended was the use of lighting (Simon Stockley) with simple backdrops to create a variety of (at times genuinely spooky) atmospheres and surprises.

‘The Magic Flute’ is a peculiar thing.  The more you look at it the deeper and more uncomfortable and controversial it gets, and the more you try to place it in the present day the less it belongs here.  I’ve never seen it before, but I suspect that White Horse Opera’s quality production was an excellent introduction to its peculiar mysteries.  It certainly went down well with the audience, and whilst the subject matter left me feeling a bit disconcerted (‘It’s not a feminist opera’ someone remarked in the interval) and wondering whether Mozart got so carried away that he forgot or didn’t think it necessary to veil his allegory, the music is undeniably sublime and I enjoyed the performance very much.

‘Outstanding!’ someone else said afterwards, and I, albeit from a layman’s viewpoint, can only agree.

Well done, White Horse Opera!

Jolly good show.

© Gail Foster 13th October

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The War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s; a preview

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The Invitation Theatre Company rock ‘War of the Worlds’ at St. Mary’s, Devizes

On hearing of this production my thought process went something like this; War of the Worlds, that’s that old 70s album, right?  The Invitation Theatre Company, didn’t they make Jesus Christ Superstar kind of interesting?  St. Mary’s, oh, visuals, now you’re talking.  Steampunk?  Sold.

It was the very end of the nineteenth century when HG Wells penned his tale.  Men have a habit of fearing the apocalypse at these times, and Wells gave those fears form in this science fiction story of war between Martians and humanity.  It took till 1978 for Jeff Wayne to pick up the ball with his album, and until now for Anthony Brown to take a chance and run with it in Devizes.

I’ve been to the tech rehearsal.  I’ve been to the dress rehearsal.  I have been playing the album all day.  I want to go again.  Sold to the barking poet.  Utterly.

The visuals first.  It’s a medieval church for starters.  There are Martian lights in the lofty arches, soft reds and greens tickling the pinnacles, shimmers of Victorian velvet and shifting shadows on the walls.  Above the main arch the conductor’s shadow moves like a demon possessed, and the Red Weed (just say no, kids) doth spill across the stone like blood.  A lightfest, so it is, a delicious smorgasbord of colour.  The set; minimal, just the narrator’s chair on high and a tall tower o’ drums on the other side of the stage.  And cogs.  Massive wooden cogs.  No Martians.  No one dressed as aliens.  Thank goodness for that.  All conveyed with lights, it is, with lights, and sound, and a well placed stare.  Clever.

The band take up over half the stage.  There are (deep breath) four keyboards, four guitars, four violins, viola, cello, a big fat double bass, percussion, drums, and a conductor.  It’s a wonderful score, besides which everything else is mere illustration and tableau, beautiful but secondary to the sound.  The band are great, despite the fact that they have played together less times than the fingers on my hand.   Flutes from keyboards, sweet violins, drums, and old stone walls drowning in sound.   Nice.  Very nice indeed.

So nice in fact that when ‘The Eve of War’ kicks in I experience a sudden ‘wild trembling exultation’.  I do hope no one noticed.  Although one is prone to these reactions it is surely only a man with no soul or rhythm who would not shift a little in his seat at some point during this production.  Or shiver at Jemma Brown’s voice.  Or at some point during ‘Forever Autumn’.  Or at the haunting ‘No Nathaniel, no’ refrain, so sweetly sung by the elegant Mari Webster, in ‘The Spirit of Man’.  Oh dear, now I am listening to it again.  I blame TITCO.  Help me.

Opportunities for serious acting are thin on the ground in this show, but what parts there be are played very well indeed.  There’s real talent here.  Paul Morgan’s voice of the journalist is reminiscent of Burton and old wirelesses; perfect, archetypal.  His reading provides the cues for the music so his timing has to be right.  Safe hands, methinks, safe hands.  Jonathan Paget; excuse me but is he actually from this century; great look.  Chris Worthy as the Artillery Man giving ‘Brave New World’ everything he has…er, why isn’t he acting and singing professionally…just asking.   And Ian Diddams, channelling the angst of all humanity with a look, a stance, a hammer and a melodious tone; presence, man, presence.  All good.  All really good.  But my prize for best actor goes unreservedly to Sean Andrews, as the demented and religiously deluded Parson Nathaniel.  His duet with Mari Webster is stunning.  When he raises his cross and the light hits it…well, what can I say.  ‘Tis a moment, to be sure.  Well done, that man, take a bow.

What else?  Oh yes, great backing vocals, particularly in the chilling ‘Ulla’ Martian song of death.  And the women look gorgeous.  When you’re done with the dresses, if you’re stuck for somewhere to store them, I might have a bit of cupboard space.  Top hat and ribbons?  Why thank you, I don’t mind if I do.

Tricky moments?  The odd sticky mic.  And, to call a spade a spade, moments in the choreography that could do with tweaking.  It’s all so complicated, with so many factors to co-ordinate, and very little space.  Fingers crossed it will be alright on the night.  No, I’m going to stick my neck out and tempt fate by saying that it’s going to be more than alright on the night.  It’s going to be glorious.

Special mentions?  Anthony Brown, ably assisted by his partner in crime, Jemma, for being brave enough to direct and conduct such a complex production.  You may have played a blinder here, sir.   And behind the scenes, Tracey Lawrence and her crew; so much sourcing, so much sewing, so much work, and all so very beautiful.

And, finally, the band.  That’s some sound you’ve got going on.  Thrilling.  But also rather challenging, methinks.  So break a leg, bow, drumstick, whatever.  For you and the sound guys hold this whole show in your hands.

No pressure…

War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s, Devizes, in a nutshell?

Just go.

For yea verily, it is seriously spot on.

© Gail Foster 15th November 2016