Tuesday 11 March 2014

The Magic Flute at the Hackney Empire: take II

Anna Patalong
Anna Patalong
Keeping the magic real: the English Touring Opera (ETO) at the Hackney Empire in the heart of the East End of London made a great success of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Nicholas Sharratt, credit Eleanor Skan
Nicholas Sharratt
credit Eleanor Skan

Having recently seen The Magic Flute by the ENO I was interested to see what the ETO would make of it. Directed by Liam Steel the ETO is running this opera with two casts: Robert Hugill saw cast I on the opening night and I saw cast II.

1791 was a busy year for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). The Köchel catalogue lists some 39 works written in this year alone. Composition of The Magic Flute was disrupted by a commission to write La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) and was finished in September after the premier of Titus. However, while in Prague for the premier of Titus, Mozart succumbed to an illness from which he never recovered. The Magic Flute was premiered on 30 September 1791, but by December Mozart was dead.

Sung in English, this performance of The Magic Flute showed Mozart at his humourist best. Here was no updating of the story to try and fit in with modern sensibilities. The evil baddie, the queen of the night sung by Laure Meloy, never made excuses for her hatred of Sarastro (Andrew Slater) and was unrepentant to the last. Her minions (Lorna Bridge, Clarissa Meek and Susan Moore) were comic baddies, more interested in ogling the beautiful young man, and fighting amongst themselves, than in any doing real evil – yet like all henchmen they got their comeuppance.

The forces of good were a secret society with Masonic overtones led by Sarastro. The society was misogynistic and cruel, meeting out random punishments (Monostatos performed by Stuart Haycock was flogged for being devious moments before an aria about forgiveness), and torturing prospective members as part of an initiation rite. This might not be what we would recognise as justice, but presumably in 1791 when this opera was written this kind of unequal behaviour was, if not acceptable, at least expected and understood.

There is not just one but two romantic couples: Pamina (Anna Patalong who stole the show) and Tamino (Nicholas Sharratt) were heroic, while Papageno (Wyn Pencarreg) and Papagena (Caryl Hughes) provided the comic relief. To keep the plot moving along, and to clear up misunderstandings that in a tragic opera would lead to someone’s death, there were three spirits. Every time I have seen The Magic Flute these roles have been played by boys. Here the ETO replaced the boys by three ladies – a move which added an extra dimension to the role. Abigail Kelly, Emily-Jane Thomas and Laura Kelly were able to be silly and fun, playing the part of slightly dippy fairies with kooky little dances and lampshade skirts, yet also be sympathetic to the plight of the other characters.

By playing this opera ‘straight’ and not relying on special effects the ETO was free to concentrate on individual performances. For example the snake was a conga of people from a debauched party Tamino attended (leading to questions about whether the following scenes were all from his drunken imagination).

It was difficult to find fault with any of the singers. Anna Patalong was outstanding as Pamina, taking the audience along with her as she was battered by hopelessness and restored to perfect happiness. Her impassioned smooth soprano voice also showed its versatility in the fast moving more ornamented passages.

Wyn Pencarreg
Wyn Pencarreg
Whether speaking, when he used his Welsh accent to accentuate the cheeky but needy side to the character, or singing Wyn Pencarreg was magnificent as Papageno. For my taste he and Anna were the stars of the show.

Laure Meloy skipped along the ridiculously high Queen of the night solos, and Andrew Slater looked and acted the part of Sarastro with his lovely clear voice, but the one or two very low notes he had were barely there.

Nicholas Sharratt and his alter ego Stuart Haycock were both strong performers. Sometimes Tamino can be a little insipid but Nicholas’ version stayed heroic throughout, and Stuart’s Monostatos was the right side of a pantomime baddie. The two groups of ladies were lively with beautifully blended voices.

The small orchestra conducted by Michael Rosewell made a big sound and carried the singers along. Much of the singing is doubled in the orchestra but it did not dominate. The chorus, especially the men’s chorus, had a lovely homespun feel - more like a local choral group than an over-starched chorus of thousands.

In keeping with this understated production Papageno had small set of pan pipes for his bird catching, but there was no musical trickery for the magical instruments. The magic flute was twirled around by Tamino, while the orchestral flautist played as usual, and Papgeno’s bells (a small silent affair on stage) were provided by a synthesiser.

The staging was Tardis blue with multiple doors and a two-way mirror at the back. At times the space behind this was used as a room which could be viewed from the side or looked down on from someone on the stage. Various hatches in the stage floor allowed people and objects to be passed around without disrupting the flow of the opera. The costuming was opulent, again without being distracting: the baddies were all dressed in dark colours - when the Queen of the night first enters her skirt fills the stage in billowing darkness, the forces for good in golds and whites.

The Hackney Empire was packed to its rafters. With its shades of Bugsy Malone, Shrek, Disney fairy movies, and D’Oyly-Carte comic farce the ETO’s The Magic Flute is bound to popular throughout its tour. The ETO is touring The Magic Flute, with King Priam (reviewed here), Paul Bunyan (reviewed here), and the children’s opera Borka: The goose with no feathers until the end of May.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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