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