Last Updated on 20th August 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Arcola Theatre, London as part of Grimeborn 2022.
Unlike many operas which suffer from rather too much directorial intervention, ‘The Magic Flute’ by Mozart positively requires it. The original dialogue for the Viennese ‘singspiel’ is not usable, and as the action progresses it becomes radically unclear who are the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ within the story. This is a golden opportunity for a director to come in and give the plot and characters a complete revamp, and this is – refreshingly – what we have here from Opera Alegría.
Here we have Tamino Prince from Financial Services stumbling into a theatre where he manages to turn out a ghost light bringing the past characters of the theatre to light, first of all the three ladies, here as cleaners and attendants to the faded diva we know as the Queen of the Night. He is much taken with Pamina, an aspirant starlet who has fallen into the company of Sarastro, a wacky conceptual director, and his ‘Trope’ of cult followers. Tamino sets off on his quest to rescue Pamina in the company of Papageno, here a follow-spot operator. Various quests and challenges are set and ultimately attained, all focused on the theatre and with the vanquishing of all the authority figures the finale presents a charming paean to the art of theatre, darkened during the pandemic and now revived.
Some of all this rigamarole works quite well especially the detailed dippiness of Sarastro and his followers, delightfully led by Alistair Sutherland punctuating events with his Tibetan bell. And certainly it helps keep the budget low because most of the scenery and props are .. well.. theatre scenery anyway. However, you do need a sense of the spectacular as well to cover the many transformations that take place and here the impression is more threadbare, with only Papageno’s music box creating the necessary sense of surprise and wonder.
Musically things are also something of a mixed bag. The singers are mostly pretty strong and good actors too. There is a witty contemporary text sung in English which fits the notes well and it is lucidly projected with full use of the all the levels of the theatre. As Pamino, Papageno and Pamina, Peter Martin, René Bloice-Sanders and Naomi Kilby are well matched vocally and clearly were enjoying themselves immensely. Fae Evelyn did a fine Gloria Swanson impersonation as the Queen of the Night and assailed the elevation of the vocal line bravely. Robert Jenkin was a characterfully petulant Monostatos, making more sense of this part than usual as a put-upon stage manager. And Papagena was a genuine surprise, one that other productions might consider imitating for the future.
But I missed the orchestra a lot, quite frankly. The upright piano was not really up to scratch, though it was good to have an (uncredited) flautist in the wings to deliver a key solo. Pianist Lindsay Bramley had a huge load of keyboard work to get through, on both piano and electric keyboard – for the music box scenes. The overture was a big ask in these circumstances and might have been omitted to advantage. This opera deserves a broader instrumental palette even in these adapted conditions.
The evening felt a couple of scenes too long in a very humid Studio 1 and a bit of judicious cutting in the second half would have helped. There is a danger sometimes of treating works such as this as sacred texts, whereas it is clear Mozart would have chopped and changed things for performances in different venues – so why not today? The audience found it a very enjoyable evening, and there is no doubt that this is an opera that is ready-made for the interventionist modernising approach that underlies the Grimeborn experience.