Saturday 8 March 2014

The Magic Flute at Hackney Empire

Ashley Catling, Adam Tunnicliffe and Maciek O'Shea and chorus, ETO: The Magic Flute
Ashley Catling, Adam Tunnicliffe, Maciek O'Shea and chorus
Mozart The Magic Flute: English Touring Opera: Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 7 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Finely sung revival of Liam Steel's imaginative production 

To complement the two 20th century operas in their Spring season, English Touring Opera (ETO) has revived Liam Steele's 2009 production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.  (In fact Steel was also the director of Britten's Paul Bunyan this season, with James Conway's production of Tippett's King Priam being the third opera). ETO were playing two dates at the Hackney Empire before The Magic Flute joins the Spring tour. The production's revival was in the hands of James Hurley, with ETO providing a double cast for many of the roles and conductors James Southall and Michael Rosewell sharing the conducting. At the first night (7 March), I caught James Southall conducting, with Ashley Catling as Tamino, Wyn Pencarreg as Papageno, Anna Patalong as Pamina, Samantha Hay as the Queen of the Night, Andrew Slater as Sarastro, plus Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne, Helen Johnson, Stuart Haycock, Piotr Lempa, Henry Manning, Simon Freller, Caryl Hughes, Adam Tunncliffe, Maciek O'Shea, Abigail Kelly, Emily-Jane Thomas and Laura Kelly.

One of the strength's of ETO at the moment is the way that it functions almost as a repertory company. Many of the singers in the above list are nominally from the chorus, and take small (and not so small) roles in the various operas. This sharing goes for some singers playing the bigger roles too, Ashley Catling is also playing Hot Biscuit Slim in Paul Bunyan and Catling shares the role of Tamino with Nicholas Sharratt who plays Paris in King Priam. I won't detail all the various permutations (it must give ETO's touring admin huge headaches), but you get the idea.

Steel's production (you can read my original review here), designed by Chloe Lamford, makes few judgements about what the opera is about, instead we get a relatively straightforward presentation of the plot. There are a few losses, no Masonic references, no Egyptian ones, but we still have the misogyny and Monostatos is generically hideous rather than being black. But what comes over is the sheer imagination in providing a magical staging on limited facilities and budget. Moments like the Queen of the Night's first entrance when her silver-blue cloak fills the stage and undulates during her aria. This latter, effected by people coming up through trapdoors in the stage, illustrates one of Steel's most brilliant ideas, to use the doors and traps in the set so that people replace technology with all the effects. The results are magical and deceptively simple.

Samantha Hay and Ashley Catling, ETO: The Magic Flute
Samantha Hay and Ashley Catling
In conductor James Southall's hands things started very well, with a fine account of the overture; with the band using double woodwind, trombone and two horns, they made a nice meaty sound and Southall kept the music moving with a lovely focussed sound.

The opening scene had Ashley Catling's Tamino fleeing a 'monster' made of people at a party. We are to presume the whole opera is in some way his escape, his dream, but this is never made clear. Catling has an interesting lyric voice with a degree of heft to it. He took some time to warm up, and in his first aria I thought he might have too much of a high-tension voice. But in fact, as he warmed to the role Catling relaxed and gave us some really fine grade singing. He continued to have an admirable degree of heft in the bigger moments, but also a lovely fine-grained tone in the quieter moments. His Tamino was very straight, very direct and very admirable.

This straightness and directness was something which applied to Anna Patalong's Pamina. Patalong has a repertoire which stretches from Handel through Donizetti to Massenet, and Puccini and her lyric voice had a richness to it in the great moments. Like Catling she took time to warm up, but Ach, ich fuhl's was superb; full of richly expressive phrasing. Whilst the opera can function without the two principals having a strong relationship, here it was clear that they were made for each other and the drama was all the stronger for it.

Wyn Pencarreg, ETO: Magic Flute
Wyn Pencarreg
Wyn Pencarreg made a delightful Papageno, combining a finely sung account of the role with a nice wit in the dialogue. He didn't go for belly laughs but used his native Welsh accent to fine effect. Thankfully here was a Papageno not frightened of actually talking to the audience, in fact I could have done with more of it. His opening aria set things off well, here was a singer able to do justice to Mozart giving us finely supported phrases, this continued into the lovely duet with Patalong's Pamina and his 'death' scene had real poignancy.

Andrew Slater's Sarastro had the air of a benevolent pater familias, Slater is one of those useful singers who find their niche in a repertory company like ETO, covering a wide variety of roles with intelligence. His Sarastro had the virtue of giving off a real aura of directness and trustworthiness. Samantha Hay was a dazzling Queen of the Night, carrying off her brilliant costume and combining it with brilliance in her singing. Hay brought a steely glitter to her coloratura and it had an admirable consistency of tone all the way up. This made the Queen nicely scary, and was fine to listen to as well (something that is remarkably difficult to achieve in practice).

The smaller roles were all admirably taken. The three ladies, Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne and Helen Johnson were a complete delight, forming a very characterful trio. Never overplaying the comedy, and giving us some nicely pointed singing. And Caryl Hughes was all charming delight as Papagena. Stuart Haycock was a characterful Monostatos and Piotr Lempa (who sings Sarastro in some performances) was a very direct Speaker, with Henry Manning and Simon Gfeller as the priests. Adam Tunnicliffe and Maciek O'Shea gave a very fine account of the lovely duet for the armed men. Abigail Kelly, Emily-Jane Thomas and Laura Kelly were the three boys, not boyish buy very charming.

The chorus of 14 were hard working; Steel is a choreographer as well as director, so the production uses a lot of choreographed movement. They made a lovely full sound in the big choruses, like the orchestra they filled the Hackney Empire admirably.

After a fine account of the overture, James Southall and the orchestra kept things zipping along nicely without ever feeling pushed. Southall created a very grown-up feeling in the overall performance, rather than the stripped down feeling that some touring versions of the opera.

This was ETO on the very top of their form, and there were plenty of people there to hear it. The Hackney Empire very full, complete with people in the upper circle, which hearteningly shows the way that ETO have made a mark in this area.

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