Mostly Mozart – The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute – Singspiel in two acts, K620 [sung in an English translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey]

Armonico Consort Opera:

Pamina – Elin Manahan Thomas
The Queen of Night – Jacquelyn Parker
Papagena – Sinéad Pratschke
Three Ladies – Joanna Forbes, Anna Bolton & Lorna James
Tamino – Mark Wilde
Papageno – Thomas Guthrie
Monostatos – Timothy Travers-Brown
Sarastro – Ronald Nairne
Speaker / Old Priest / Second Armed Man – William Townend
Priest / First Armed Man – Nicholas Mulroy
Three Boys – Tiffany Lear, Kate Eaves & Simeon Blake-Hall

Chorus of Priests, Slaves & Sarastro’s subjects
Junior Chorus

Orchestra of the Baroque
Christopher Monks

Thomas Guthrie – Director
Roger Butlin – Designer
Chaz Creighton-Griffiths – Lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 26 July, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was advertised as a concert performance but was in fact fully staged in serviceable designs by Roger Butlin, with a circular acting area surmounted by two tall scenery pieces separated like parts of a jigsaw-puzzle providing access for formal entries and exits. The 19-strong orchestra occupied a tiered structure stage-right, facing inwards. The conductor had his back to the action but musical co-ordination was nevertheless good throughout.

It was billed as a “family-friendly presentation”, with emphasis on the opera’s “pantomime magic”. I noticed some families but few children for this single performance. Those children who came would doubtless have been captivated by the backstage tour they were given. Preparations were seen being made for the introduction and use of props. The child-actors were seen donning their animal heads, the serpent was carried across the stage during the Overture and the operation of the tiger’s mouth and tail was clearly visible.

However, this was not a ‘Magic Flute’ which emphasised the comic element. Indeed, laughter was at a premium. The Masonic message of Reason and Benevolence was much more prominent. Furthermore, its representatives won the narrative battle in this production hands down, from the moment of Tamino’s initial encounter with the Speaker of the Temple, who was all moderation and sweet reasonableness. The singer of the latter role, William Townend, was well cast, with a voice of good pedigree, so important in this part at any level. The cult of Reason was presented as a relatively young community: no grey hairs were visible on Sarastro or any of his followers, tilting the balance again in favour of their ideals. Unlike some recent productions, however, there was no external symbolic distinction between the two worlds and their inhabitants. Costumes were predominantly white except for Papageno and, more surprisingly, Monostatos. Righteousness reached its apogee in the final chorus: reconciliation was achieved as the baddies were admitted to the celebrations.

Orchestra of the Baroque, comprising leading ‘period’ instrumentalists, played impeccably. Christopher Monks avoided excessively bass-heavy textures, even in the solemn passages. Nevertheless, his choice of predominantly light voices sometimes risked a balance favouring instrumental sound above vocal. Ronald Nairne lacked weight of tone as Sarastro, though he could shape a vocal line persuasively and did so in a brisk-paced ‘Hallenarie’, where the absence of resonance was less of a handicap than in ‘O Isis und Osiris’. As his main opponent, Jacquelyn Parker had all the notes required for the Queen of Night and enacted an intimidating character on her every appearance but few of her words could be caught. Timothy Travers-Brown seemed to have plenty of voice as Monostatos but too often chose a type of sprechgesang.

Mark Wilde portrayed a naïve, idealistic Tamino, readily persuaded of the Queen of Night’s and her Ladies’ version of events and only too eager to act as their tool to ‘rescue’ Pamina. His enunciation was clear throughout. Vocally, Wilde’s pure, heady tone was established from the first aria, which had a hint of an internal cadenza, fulfilled in a later Act One solo with a thoroughly florid addition to the written notes. Frustratingly, however, that essential musical grace in music of this period, the appoggiatura, was virtually totally neglected by the singers.

Elin Manahan Thomas looked bonny but managed to cut an authoritative figure as Pamina: her great affirmation of commitment to truth was backed up by her leadership of the Trials quartet. ‘Ach ich fuhl’s’ was admirably vocalised. The three Boys turned out to include two girls but they produced the appropriate ethereal sound. Their counterparts, the three Ladies, rivalled each other vividly in their desire for Tamino.

As Papageno, I found Thomas Guthrie’s singing voice a fraction too lightweight and soft-grained for the part, particularly in ensemble, where he was too often swamped by the other voices. Dramatically, by contrast, he governed the stage. His Papageno was not just down-to-earth by comparison with the rarefied world of elitism, ethics and learning; he was positively boorish.

This was a class-conscious presentation of the opera: the translator Kit Hesketh-Harvey differentiated sharply between the lofty language of the work’s serious dimension and the street language of Papageno. He could order people to “go to hell”, exclaim “frigging heck”, address one character as “angel-chops”, describe another as a “coffin-dodger” and himself as being “jiggered” (watered down for the anticipated juvenile audience, perhaps), as well as showing his contempt for the priests with a vulgar gesture of dismissal.

Guthrie was also the stage director. He kept the action moving, used the platform enterprisingly and was consistently successful in blocking the performers. Awkward incidents such as Pamina’s attempted suicide were smartly handled. Most impressive was the imaginative idea he devised for the entry of Papagena. A spell of direct interaction with the audience culminated in his summoning a supposed ice-cream seller onto the platform, who became the bird-catcher’s Papagena. Thus was avoided her conventional but rather distasteful disguising as an old hag. This approach contributed to their re-union scene being particularly endearing.

In the dialogue there were some contemporary cultural references: Papageno’s working conditions was compared to a franchise and a Leslie Nielsen-style literalist response to a cue brought a chuckle from me at least. Hesketh-Harvey’s most imaginative contribution came in ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’, where there was much play with the final syllable of Papageno’s name.

The lighting, originally designed by Adam Crosthwaite and here effected by Chaz Creighton-Griffiths, was a crucial and expressive scenic element throughout. The Trials scene comprised a central illuminated corridor for the lovers fringed on each side by, respectively, red and blue borders to represent fire and water. Some choreographed movements by the multi-skilled members of the company transformed the static effect into the licking of flames and crashing of waves.

I doubt if this was many people’s first “The Magic Flute”, but Armonico Consort had brought together a group of gifted artists who presented the work with commitment and ingenuity.

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