Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Magic Flute
NI Opera, 2014
Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Aoife Miskelly, Anthony Gregory, Ben McAteer, Stephen Richardson, Ruth Jenkins-Róbertson, John Graham-Hall, Brendan Collins, Sinéad O'Kelly, Sarah Richmond, Laura Murphy, Richard Shaffrey, Lynsey Curtin, James Osborne, Dylan Scullion, George Rohan
Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 11th September 2014
There are many ways to approach the richness of ideas and meanings in The Magic Flute, but first and foremost the performance must be lively and entertaining. Oscar Wilde said that life is far too important a thing to take seriously, and you could say the same thing about The Magic Flute. Through the entertainment and the wonderful music, all the beauty of the work, its characterisation, its sensibility, its enlightened views on life, love and liberty all come tumbling out, almost effortlessly.
That's the secret to the success of NI Opera's latest production, making the effort seem minimal, letting the spirit of the Magic Flute float out there as if it is indeed a pure and simple expression of the truth that doesn't require any heavy-handed symbolism or mystical obfuscation. Considerable effort has undoubtedly gone into making it seem effortless, and that's part of the trick. Commencing what is now the fourth full season in their short history, the Northern Ireland company get off to a flying start here in an impressive production that shows that they have their finger on the pulse of opera as well as on the mood of the province.
Touring through Armagh, Omagh, Belfast and Derry, this production is aimed at reaching a wider and a younger audience, and there aren't many works that are as widely appealing and at the same time as expressive of the nature and the brilliance of opera as The Magic Flute. If you can make it entertaining, you have the audience eating out of your hand with characters and tunes like this winning hearts and minds. Seeing Die Zauberflöte as a celebration of Masonic rituals and ideals is missing the point. Seeing it as wholly Mozart is what makes the work great. NI Opera clearly recognised the advantages of that perspective and the standing ovation at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast was well deserved.
Taking the spirit of Mozart as a starting point, approaching The Magic Flute as a wonderful entertaining puzzle, set designer Simon Holdsworth creates a set design that is elegant, eye-catching, functional, impressive, clever and often surprising. It's everything that Mozart and The Magic Flute should be. The 'theme' is a black and white marble chequerboard design, which sets the idea for a game of chess strategy between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, but also is easily adaptable to the snakes and ladders of Tamino's opening struggle - funny and frightening - with the giant serpent.
The black-and-white theme is predominant throughout, partly as a means of distinguishing between those opposing forces of good and evil, but it blends in (without forcing the issue) with the idea of elegance and order that is also an important part of Mozart's creation. Without making an issue of the period either, the setting is vaguely 1940s, reflecting perhaps a more recent familiar view of dominant masculinity as well as one where the value of a woman's contribution is recognised, if for nothing else than for it being a necessary complementary flipside of masculinity. This follows through to the black-and-white tradition of dress in the brilliantly staged wedding that wraps up the conclusion here so well.
There appears to be little validation for the three boys being pilots in a little red plane (wonderfully sung and played out by the young boys) or for Sarastro being depicted as a lord of the manor, first seen dressed for a fox hunt with his disciples, with other members being gardeners on his estate and Monostatos his footman, but at the same time, the characterisation fits the work perfectly. Place Sarastro on a leather chair in a library of what looks like a gentleman's club, and you get the same sense of a society that values its own view of tradition, learning and progressiveness without the associated connotations of cults and Freemasonry.
The production is totally in the spirit of Mozart then and so is Oliver Mears' direction. The clever little twists and devices are inspired, not just being added for the sake of amusement, but they find - through entertaining means - a way to explore and reveal other aspects of what can be fairly strange characters. The reason we know that there is more to these characters than is visible on the surface is that Mozart's warm, sensitive and ennobling music tells us so. That's brought out well by conductor Nicholas Chalmers despite the relatively small size of the orchestra. With only one first violin and one second violin, it doesn't manage to be quite as lyrical as the music ought to be, but it captures perfectly the beauty of the melodies, as well as the spirit and the pace of the work in all its variety of tones and situations.
It was a full account of Die Zauberflöte too, with the only significant cuts I noticed being in the reduction of the recitative and spoken dialogue. I'm not always a fan of unsubtitled English-language versions of opera, but it has to be said that in a theatre of this size, it worked well. The translation of the libretto for this production was also extremely clever and very witty. It particularly came to life since it was sung and performed so well - a testament to the direction and the quality of the singing. When you're talking about an entertaining Magic Flute, you're talking about one where Papageno makes a strong impact and Ben McAteer's performance, in dungarees covered with bird-crap, was indeed the stand-out routine of the night, his voice agile, his enunciation clear and his personality engaging.
There was a great mix of young new talent and solid experience in the rest of the cast that blended well. Aiofe Miskelly is Belfast's rising star on the international stage, and is clearly as capable in challenging repertoire roles like Pamina as she is in more experimental modern works. She was very well matched by Anthony Gregory's commanding Tamino. Everything about his performance as a fine, upstanding young Prince made it clear why Tamino inspires the kind of confidence that others place in him. Stephen Richardson was a deep and resonant Sarastro, getting right down to those near-impossible low notes and making them ring. At the other end of the scale Ruth Jenkins-Róbertson's entrance as the Queen of the Night was spectacularly staged and vocally impressive, as were her formidable Three Ladies. John Graham-Hall's cockney-inflected Monostatos might have been a little over-exaggerated, but it fully participated in the entertaining richness of the characterisation and the performance.