Royal College of Music – Die Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflöte – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder [sung in German with English surtitles]

Sarastro – Jimmy Holliday
Tamino – Tyler Clarke
Speaker – Sam Evans
Bass Priest – Ed Grint
Tenor Priest – Anthony Gregory
Queen of the Night – Suzanne Shakespeare
Pamina – Sarah-Jane Brandon
First Lady – Lorna Bridge
Second Lady – Audrey Kessedjian
Third Lady – Rosie Aldridge
First Boy – Freddie Benedict
Second Boy – Ben Richardson
Third Boy – William Hesketh
Papageno – Peter Braithwaite
Papagena – Susanna Hurrell
Monostatos – John McMunn
First Armed Man – Michael Scott
Second Armed Man – Ed Grint
First Slave – Christopher Jacklin
Second Slave – Cliff Zammit Stevens
Third Slave – Fredrik Annmo

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

Tim Carroll – Director
Roger Butlin – Designer
Richard Howell – Lighting design
Siân Williams – Choreography

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 30 November, 2009
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

“Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute) is here given in the original German. There perhaps is some logic in this as these young singers will inevitably end up performing works in other languages and giving them experience in this regard is laudable. However, “Die Zauberflöte” has a considerable amount of dialogue and one, particularly where Papageno is concerned, that requires interactive communication with the audience. Not all the cast sounded entirely comfortable with their spoken German and tended to blunt the humour and meaning. This is less of a problem with the singing as the musical line will shape the flow of the words. Nonetheless, the entire cast collectively overcame these difficulties in a performance that was genial, gentle and enjoyable.

The setting was simple with effective use made of flown screens to divide the settings and keep the dramatic propulsion. There were some good directorial ideas, too. The trials by fire and water were staged by use of puppets, the wild animals both intriguing and charming without being cutesy, and even the tricky serpent at the start of the action was handled with the minimum of fuss. The use of contrast of light and dark in the costuming and in the auditorium was effective. The brightness of the settings and the white of the Queen of the Night’s costume and that of her three ladies emphasised that her domain is in the open, whereas the enlightened domain of Sarastro is generally within the confines of a closed and dark temple. I liked the inference that the boys are unseen by the protagonists and are almost voices within their heads. This was particularly effective at the moment where Pamina contemplated suicide. The self-absorption of some of the characters was also strongly delineated. The three ladies were keener on one-upping each other as they fought over the unconscious Tamino – at one point humorously dropping him whist they argued with one another. I also liked the way that Papageno was so busy and lost in thought whilst playing with the magic bells that he failed to notice the arrival of the true Papagena. Other ideas were less convincing – such as the rather artificial reconciliation of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, and indeed the isolation of Tamino. There’s enough symbolism in the piece without it needing additional layers!

On the musical side matters were in good hands. Michael Rosewell balanced well the more sombre moments with the lighter ones, and mercifully did not allow the former to become laboured. Despite their positioning way back in the pit and under the stage the brass was amazingly resonant. Mention must be made of the excellent flute- and oboe-playing – the dovetailing of their respective lines in the overture was just perfect.

“Die Zauberflöte” is a good work for an opera school/music college since there are so many roles that each offers interpreters some scope for individuality. Sarah-Jane Brandon’s lovely Pamina was very much the lynchpin of this performance. No surprise that she was the winner of the 2009 Kathleen Ferrier Award! The voice is even, beautiful throughout its range, and one feels always that there is power in reserve. More importantly she has a very natural stage presence and her acting evinces sincerity – vital for this part. Indeed, she interpreted the role with more conviction than many famous interpreters I have seen. Tyler Clarke was a good foil as Tamino. If his voice is not always as melting as one might wish, he certainly has the necessary heroic quality to the tone and was dignified. Peter Braithwaite was a gentle and personable Papageno, and managed the switches between humour and pathos well. He interacted nicely with the audience despite the language barrier (always tricky to deliver jokes with a surtitle translation!), and his light baritone was heard to advantage in the acoustics of the Britten Theatre. Good diction too. Amazingly that can also be said of Suzanne Shakespeare’s Queen of the Night too. In this impossible part she acquitted herself very well indeed – the first aria ‘O zittre nicht’ was probably the more successful, not least as the slower section was so well sung. The coloratura of both arias was neatly dispatched, too.

Jimmy Holliday’s benign Sarastro was well sung but his tone perhaps needs a little more bass resonance. Sam Evans was excellent as the Speaker, singing his lines in lovely long phrases. Susanna Hurrell gave a fine cameo as a Papagena with attitude. The three ladies were a sprightly trio, with Rosie Aldridge making much of her ‘third’ status. Incidentally, there was a curious, surprising, almost improvisatory variant towards the end of their first trio that certainly your reviewer had never heard before, either live or on a recording, which caught the attention. No mention in the programme-note sadly, but it would be interesting to learn more about its provenance.

John McMunn was an effective Monostatos though perhaps the tempo of ‘Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden’ was a little too rapid for him. The three boys, all from Trinity Boys School, were excellent and the armed men were suitably stentorian. As can be judged, the cast was well balanced, and that made for an unusually satisfying evening from a vocal perspective, and with a production that maintains the interest and has some excellent ideas there’s much to recommend.

  • Further performances at 7 p.m. on 2, 4 & 5 December (with some alternative casting on 2 & 5)
  • Royal College of Music

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