Mozart The Magic Flute, Scottish Opera
***** 5 Stars
Magic Flute was composed during the last year of Mozart’s life, at the request of his friend Schikaneder, the actor-director of the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. It was a howling success at its first performance in 1791, and has remained so ever since: tonight’s performance continued the tradition, with the audience in almost non-stop tears of laughter and sorrow.
Think pantomime with stirring, heart-wrenching, gleeful and solemn, moving music in a world where nothing is what it seems as first to be: add a mixture of Victorian engineering endeavour and music-hall rumbustiousness and a cast who throw their heart and soul into the performance, and you have the recipe for an evening of unparalleled entertainment which keeps getting better and better till the final curtain.
The story contrasts the aspirations and fate of two men – prince Tamino, his elegant cream jacket and noble bearing signifying his higher calling, and the very much lowlier Papageno, dressed in working-men’s clothing and focussed almost entirely on his stomach and his search for a sweetheart. Their paths cross and, together and separately, they pursue their quest to rescue the fair Pamina, daughter of the terrifying Queen of the Night, who is held prisoner by the evil magician Sarastro. On the way they encounter the Queen, her three Ladies, her servant Monostatos, three Boys, and the inhabitants of Sarastro’s temple: Tamino is given the magic flute while Papageno gets a set of magic bells, and the men learn that all is not what it seems – don’t believe everything you are told, especially [in this case] if you’re told it by scary-looking women in sparkly dresses!
The overture, bubbling with excitement, set the tone for everything that followed. The Showman emerged, spotted an elegant gentleman in the stage box and invited him, and us, through the door into the Temple of Mysteries which declaimed “The Secret of Life is Here”. Together we entered a magical world which at first seemed to be a crowded fairground or scientific exhibition and later became a temple, a prison, a rocky waste, and the arena from whose stands Sarastro’s followers could watch Tamino’s progress towards enlightenment and Papageno’s progress towards a more earthy satisfaction.
The music is incomparable – Tamino’s rapture at the sight of Pamina’s picture, the Queen of the Night’s chillingly stratospheric showstoppers, Pamina’s heart-wrenching grief at what she thinks is Tamino’s abandonment of her, Sarastro’s solemn wisdom and Papageno’s every note held the audience entranced. Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s translation kept us in stitches, while subtle and brilliant details added sparkle to an already gleaming production – my particular favourites were the ingenious presentation of the wild beasts that threaten the two men and are pacified by the flute’s music and the transformation of Monostatos’ henchmen into handkerchief-waving Morris dancers… The costumes ranged from the glittering, starry frocks of the Queen and her Ladies through Victorian top-hatted policeman to downright working-class miners: I’m not sure who the nurses were meant to be nursing – and why, oh why, did Pamina have to be in a nightie-like, but corseted, shabby white frock?
And oh, the singing! Not only was it superb throughout, but launched into without preparation – Flute’s dialogue is mostly spoken, and the arias in general have extremely short, almost non-existent introductions. The most outstanding instance is Pamina’s lament ach, ich fuhl’s which was tonight heard in that intense silence that means the entire audience is transported out of themselves and into the singer’s world. This was Gemma Summerfield’s Scottish Opera début – I devoutly hope she will return to them very soon. Peter Gijsbertsen’s Tamino doesn’t have the same depth and impact as Pamina, but I loved his voice and the ease with which he sang.
Julia Sitkovetsky is another one to watch out for – she navigated the Queen of the Night’s high-lying arias with consummate ease and the audience was duly appreciative. Dingle Yandell made a noble Sarastro, with impressive bass notes – my quarrel with him is his insistence that man is the higher being, and woman merely subservient: I’m not sure that he was totally convinced by his final assertion that “hypocrisy’s shattered and truth wins the fight”…
The three Ladies [Jeni Bern, Bethan Langford and Sioned Gwen Davies] did a wonderful job, protecting Tamino from the monster and admonishing Papageno’s greed while endeavouring to advance their Queen’s Evil Plan: the three Boys had a hard task – mainly suspended in mid-air at the back of the stage, their voices mostly failed to reach us with any clarity: they did better when allowed to stand on the stage and move forwards. Sofia Troncoso’s Papagena spent much of her time on stage looking like a cross between Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and “like an egg with legs”: when she finally emerged from her cocoon she was both a glorious sight and a joy to hear as she shared Papageno’s joy in the prospect of their ever-increasing brood of chicks.
The star of the show was undoubtedly Papageno. Richard Burkhard made the most of the role Mozart had written for his friend Schikaneder, engaging with us from the start, keeping us in fits of laughter, and almost incidentally tossing off his fabulous arias and duets as if they were the simplest thing in the world. Special credit has to go to the wonderful automaton which played his magic bells: a triumph of engineering which in itself is worth the price of a ticket.
It was a glorious evening’s entertainment, with something for everyone – just as Mozart had intended in 1791. Don’t miss it!
Scottish Opera Presents, Mozart The Magic Flute,Edinburgh Festival Theatre Runs until 15th June, production visits London and Belfast, for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/magicflute