Guildhall School – Die Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflöte, K620 – Singspiel in two acts to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder [Sung in German with English surtitles]

Tamino – Amar Muchhala
Three Ladies – Lisa Wilson, Rowan Hellier & Melanie Lang
Papageno – Jean-Philippe Elleouet
Queen of the Night – Emily Rowley Jones
Pamina – Sarah Power
Monostatos – John Bacon
Three Girls – Emilie Brégeon, Johanne Cassar & Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Sarastro – Ritz de Ridder
Papagena – Daire Halpin

Chorus & Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Sian Edwards

William Kerley – Director
Tom Rogers – Designer
Tina MacHugh – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Matthew Boyden

Reviewed: 24 November, 2007
Venue: Guildhall School Theatre, London

For many people the deceptive simplicity of “The Magic Flute” has invited the most complex digression. The opera does invite scholarly research and conjecture – and it is to be remembered that Jacques Chailly completed, in the 1970s, a 400-page investigation of the opera’s esoteric symbolism – but the celebration of minutiae does not make for valuable communication when seeking to bring the work alive. There have been many celebrated disasters, and the majority have failed either because the director thought they were capable of revealing numinous insights unknown even to the work’s authors, or because of humourlessness and pretension. The latter quality is almost a pre-requisite for opera directors; the former is rare to the point of abstraction.

In the four-night run of “The Magic Flute” presented by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the director William Kerley managed successfully to create a convincing design and fluent narrative in which Schikaneder and Mozart’s easy wit was allowed to flourish unencumbered by symbolism or convolution. He achieved this also on a tiny budget, and should be commended for reminding the music-world that opera need not be expensive for it to be enjoyable or professional.

His approach – unlike that of the translator responsible for the surtitles – took few liberties with the text, and each of the dramatic episodes was portrayed with respect for the work as written. The primary conceit was that the entire drama was imagined by an office-worker (Tamino) trapped alongside his colleagues in a cubicle, so drawing parallels between our hero and that of Terry Gilliam’s dystopia “Brazil”. Both were dreaming of a way out of the horror of their corporate insignificance. Much of Tom Rogers’s design played on the notion that our office worker was employed in a world of computers, so there was a giant USB cable for the dragon, numerous references to iPods, mobile phones (which were used to great comic affect by Papageno) and PCs, and an atmosphere of neon that served to amplify the other-worldliness that is the opera’s hallmark.

The witty design extended to some clever costumes, with the Three Girls dressed as school-girls wearing tartan skirts riding tricycles with green helium balloons floating from the handlebars. They were wonderfully creepy, and beautifully sung. The Three Ladies were less well sung, and less defined visually, dressed as they were in simple white gowns; their appearance served nonetheless to contrast with that of the Queen of the Night, whose characterisation as a dominatrix was less striking than the singing of Emily Rowley Jones. This fearsome role posed her no difficulties, and she didn’t put a note wrong. As much cannot always be said of performances of this role, and while one might have wanted for more personality in her singing, her diction was superb, and a summary lesson.

Being that we were witness to our hero’s imagination, Pamina was dressed as Lara Croft, and Sarah Power managed to fulfil Croft’s T-shirt as well as the musical expectations of the role. She sang beautifully, and with considerable animation, touching the heart as well as stiffening the sinews, and she is assured great success in the future. The same may not be said of Ritz de Ridder’s Sarastro. This is an unforgiving role at the best of times, and demands a genuine bass. Anyone in their twenties is going to struggle with the part, and judging by his fluttering vibrato, and poor extension, de Ridder was far from comfortable in the role. John Bacon’s Monostatos was vocally insecure also, but he is a natural comic, and scored many laughs; the same may be said of Daire Halpin’s Papagena and Jean-Philippe Elleouet’s Papageno, although they are both consummate vocal artists also, with fully-formed voices and a natural, easy stage presence. The solo vocal star of the show was Amar Muchhala as Tamino. His light tenor is not quite there yet – he needs to relax his throat – but he is musical, slim, handsome and an unfussy actor. He should go far.

The orchestra was a little threadbare – particularly among the strings – and Sian Edwards is to be praised for bringing such cohesion to the performance. If she was responsible for training the chorus she deserves an award. This was quite simply some of the finest operatic chorus singing I have ever heard, a beautiful contribution that raised this already fine performance to the status of something truly special.

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