Tuesday 30 September 2014

Verdi - Aida (Verona 2013 - Blu-ray)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Arena di Verona, 2013

Omer Meir Wellber, Carlus Padrissa, Àlex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus, Hui He, Fabio Sartori, Giovanna Casolla, Roberto Tagliavini, Ambroglio Maestri, Adrian Sampetrean, Carlo Bosi, Elena Rossi

Bel Air - Blu-ray

You don't often see a minimally dressed stage for a production of Aida, and you certainly won't be accustomed to see it at a production in the open air Arena di Verona, where Franco Zeffirelli's vast, flamboyant and extravagant staging is normally the house production. Minimalism isn't something you associate either with La Fura dels Baus, but when the camera sweeps over the walls of the ancient Roman arena, there's literally nothing on the stage but two narrow crane scaffolds. In the year when Verona celebrated Verdi's masterpiece with two productions, one a recreation of the original production and one experimental, it would be a surprise if the Catalan team didn't rise to the challenge of the occasion in this venue.

There may be something to be said for taking the focus away from the spectacle and giving more attention to the actual human dilemma in Aida, but if there is, I haven't seen it. The godfather of theatrical minimalism Robert Wilson didn't make a convincing case for it, so it may well be that Verdi's grand conception and the music he writes for Aida does indeed demand big gestures. And an audience expects to be treated to a spectacle in Aida. La Fura dels Baus therefore take a bit of a risk with their approach, but one of their strengths is indeed finding the right scale for a work and the site-specific environment that it is staged in. Their Aida isn't actually minimalist, it just takes advantage of the natural environment. Short of putting on the work beside the Pyramids in Egypt, there's hardly a more suitably ancient setting for Aida than the Roman amphitheatre in Verona.

Nor, despite initial appearances, is the stage entirely bare for the whole performance. Just before the overture, a few extras dressed as old-style archaeologists from the British Museum use local workers to reassemble part of an old temple wall, the implication presumably being that we are going to build up a view of an ancient past. The stage does indeed start to accumulate props as the opera progresses, building up a concept that might not entirely be comprehensible and might take some fantastical leaps of imagination, but it does in a way reflect the pace and the deepening emotional and dramatic building of the drama. In terms of how this culminates in Aida's famous conclusion, there's now a fully-fledged technologically-elaborate La Fura dels Baus set that hits the dramatic high-point with all the force that an audience expects of this work.

For the earlier part of the production then just as the sun is setting, Padrissa and Ollé allow the location to do most of the work for them. The ballets and processions all involve large numbers of supernumeraries walking through the audience with lighted football-sized globes and lining up in the upper tiers at the back of the amphitheatre. It's simple but effective. Things get a little more elaborate (and confusing) when we come to the Triumphal March, which involves an acrobat hanging on a cable (but not singers in this Fura production for a change), with mechanical elephants and camels marched across the stage, as well as troops in scarab buggies and a forklift truck carrying reflective silver cubes. The impression it gives is of a stylised ancient Egypt in the costume design and make-up, but almost a science-fiction version of it.

Almost without noticing it however, the stage gradually accumulates and transforms. Large inflatable Dali-like soft shapes arise in the background, which when lit and projected upon, give a vague impression of sand dunes. The silver cubes meanwhile are assembled into a large concave cross, which gradually descends at the end of the opera to enclose Aida and Radamès in their tomb. Elsewhere, the set designers are able to recreate a stylised Nile riverbank for Act III, complete with water, plastic-backed crocodiles, and waving palm fronds made of the same cables that are even used to create a futuristic dress for Aida. On paper it sounds like a terrible way to stage Aida. There's no attempt to make any commentary on war, imperialism or nationalism in the concept, but it proves nonetheless to be remarkably effective both as a spectacle and as support for the love drama.

As such, the production design doesn't overwhelm the human characters at the heart of Aida, nor does it overwhelm the performers. Thankfully, the singing is also strong enough for there never be any danger of that happening. Hui He is even stronger in the role of Aida here than in the previous version of the role I've heard her sing (Maggio Musicale Fiorentino). Her voice is fuller here (at the cost perhaps of a little clarity of diction), with a soft legato that reaches those high-notes much more smoothly. I didn't see much of an emotional connection to the character in her performance, but it's sung well and clearly gets out there to the arena audience. Fabio Sartori's voice is also big enough if not terribly lyrical and his notes stray a little, but he's just about good enough for Radamès. I most enjoyed Giovanna Casolla's Amneris. She has a firm, commanding voice for the most part and manages to be suitably formidable while demonstrating a human side.

The open-air nature of the Arena di Verona doesn't give the best acoustics to judge the performance of the orchestra, but Omer Meir Wellber conducts the work well through all its dramatic points and show pieces. The visual and audio qualities of the video recording are also restricted somewhat by the venue, which means that the Blu-ray isn't always as clear as it might be as it tries to cope with the changing light conditions. An attempt to capture the full impact of a large-scale La Fura dels Baus production like this is also difficult, but the filming does reasonably well. The Blu-ray is BD25, region-free, with subtitles in Italian, German, French, English and Spanish.

Friday 26 September 2014

Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier (Salzburg 2014 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Salzburg 2014

Franz Welser-Möst, Harry Kupfer, Krassimira Stoyanova, Sophie Koch, Günther Groissböck, Mojca Erdmann, Adrian Eröd, Silvana Dussmann, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Rudolf Schasching, Stefan Pop, Tobias Kehrer, Martin Piskorski, Franz Supper, Dirk Aleschus, Roman Sadnik, Rupert Grössinger

Medici.tv - August 2014

It's probably a self-evident truth and practically a definition of opera, but perhaps more so than any other work, there needs to be a perfect coming together of all the various elements in Der Rosenkavalier. Each of its elements - not just the music, the singing and the staging, but all the other areas that are considered less important - all have their part to play in making this difficult opera work. Truly work as it's meant to. As Salzburg productions go, their 2014 Der Rosenkavalier isn't one of their most adventurous, but in almost every area it serves the intentions of the work, showing in the process just how perfect Der Rosenkavalier can be, and consequently just how miraculous the nature of opera itself can be.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal's first fully-fledged collaboration (after adapting Hofmannsthals' dramatic version of Elektra), Der Rosenkavalier is an immense but delicately poised work that presents considerable challenges in its huge orchestration, the intricacy of interplay and interaction and the demands that it places on the singing voices. Attention to these demands is necessary to achieve a very specific tone and mood, and a production can't really stray too far away from these intentions without undermining the entire purpose of the work. As it says itself, it's a Viennese farce and nothing more, but like the Mozart comedies that it is styled on, Der Rosenkavalier opens up deeper meditations on life, love, time, on the necessary but beautiful pain that comes with the passing of the old and the birth of the new. Der Rosenkavalier in itself, reverential and referential of older opera works, indulges this nostalgia for the past at the same time as it points a way towards the future.

The person best placed to draw out those qualities in a production of Der Rosenkavalier and bring the necessary balance of warm nostalgia and reflective meditation on the meaning of it all, is traditionally the conductor. It's always the conductor who is in charge of Der Rosenkavalier. Leading the ever impressive Vienna Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Möst's control and management of the score is absolutely stunning, weaving Strauss' complex lines through the singing voices, matching the melodies, the tempo and the sheer majesty of a score whose lyricism and evocation of resonances belies any notion of the work being merely "a Viennese farce and nothing more". More than anything else, it's Strauss's writing that fleshes out the broad strokes of the stock characters, imbuing them with considerably more personality and humanity and making their concerns and behaviour universally recognisable.

It's immediately apparent that the Salzburg production has a handle on all these essential ingredients. From the overture to the impression that is created by the elegant set for the Marschallin's bedroom in Act I, everything feels right and sounds right. All the more so on account of the singers we have in the roles of Marschallin and Octavian. Sophie Koch is maybe not so sure of voice on the top notes as she once was singing Octavian, but her experience counts. She knows the role well and is better fitted than most to handle the intricacies of this difficult trouser role (ahem, Glyndebourne!). Krassimira Stoyanova is a glorious Marschallin and gives a great performance here. She has an amazing voice that is perfect for big roles like this, and she is simply just one of the best Marschallins in the world at the moment. I don't think there's any particular chemistry between Stoyanova and Koch, but they work together well and bring their own character successfully to the roles.

I was disappointed however by Günther Groissböck's Ochs von Lerchenau. Not with his singing, which I thought might have been challenged by such a role. True, he doesn't have the commanding boom that is required and is probably a little too young and handsome for the role, but he navigates his way perfectly through the long and challenging sing-speech rhythms of the part. His timbre is lovely and his delivery is perfectly good, but I just couldn't take to him as the baron. He never looked terribly comfortable with the part either, his gestures limited to an arrogant sneer and swagger, adopting a teapot stance and flicking his hand dismissively now and again. His concentration on the delivery means that he sings the role almost entirely without looking at any of the other characters he is interacting with. It's possible I suppose that this is how the role has been directed, Ochs always dominating, the other characters always behind him, subservient to his sense of self-importance.

Whether it was an issue with casting or direction, Baron Ochs consequently failed to come to life for me or really make the necessary stamp on the significance of his role in Der Rosenkavalier. Other than that however, Harry Kupfer's direction is hard to fault. The stage design is classy and elegant, the silver-grey colour scheme giving a sense of a cool nostalgic detachment for an idealised past. Hans Schavernoch's set is made up of large panels and props that glide into position, while large projected photographs of classical Vienna scenes, rooftops and parks place the work perfectly into the essential context of the wider world that the opera is set in.

The stylised version of this cold idealised Vienna contrasted perfectly with the warm richness of the lives and sentiments of the characters within it. Act I and II contrasted noble elegance with vulgar extravagance of marbled ostentation, while Act III didn't just reveal the darker underside of the comic playing, it practically built the set around the performers in the location of a misty Prater park, making it feel wholly a part of the wider world. Everything slips into place the way it ought to, as elegantly as Strauss's score, and the finale consequently was simply gorgeous. Och ungraciously fades back into the mist, the Marschallin glides off in her Rolls Royce, leaving Koch's Octavian and Mojca Erdmann's delicately sweet-toned Sophie to look ahead to the future.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House 2014 - Blu-ray)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House 2014

Kasper Holten, Nicola Luisotti, Mariusz Kwiecień, Alex Esposito, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Véronique Gens, Malin Byström, Antonio Poli, Elizabeth Watts, David Kimberg

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Mozart's Don Giovanni is a larger than life character. Not unrealistically larger than life, but truly a highly complex individual. You could write tomes of analysis on the character and still barely scratch the surface. Don Giovanni has been interpreted and psychoanalysed in countless productions, and every production somehow always seems to bring out another facet of his personality. Depending on the director and depending on the singer, Don Giovanni can be a rogue and a playboy; a heartless seducer of innocent women who is evil incarnate; or he can simply be a sensitive man who loves women too much; a charmer who women can't resist; a commitment-phobe who is unable to form attachments to any one woman when there are so many out there; women who fall for the rogue knowing full well that he will use and abandon them. Some might even foolishly believe they can change him.

Kasper Holten is undoubtedly aware of the complex nature of this colossus of the opera world and is certainly not the first to recognise that Don Giovanni is Don Giovanni - the opera is the man. That's not to say that the other characters in the opera aren't well developed. Like all Mozart's mature operas - and even some of the more youthful ones - the music is considered with attention to detail for even the smallest and seemingly most frivolous of secondary roles. Lorenzo da Ponte's development of character and plot meanwhile ensure that there's a dramatic consistency to the human interaction of every personality. Nevertheless, Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera is a huge figure who is unquestionably the centre and the driving force for the behaviour of every other person. His actions and the performance of the person playing the role determines the whole tone of the opera.

Mozart might have had one dominant character in mind when he composed for Don Giovanni - the work according to Mozart's own description of it is primarily a comedy - but his writing and Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto leave a lot of room for interpretation. A whole lot of room is needed for a figure like this, and Kasper Holten consequently uses the whole of the stage of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. In Es Devlin's designs, the stage is Don Giovanni, every detail, every colour, every lighting consideration, every stage prop and backdrop are used to express the magnificent monstrosity of Don Giovanni as he is written by Mozart. The set is a complex revolving arrangement of boxes, compartments, doors and staircases that during the overture fogs over with a black mist and fills up with the name of his conquests. Donna Anna wears a black stained dress, as if carrying the corruption of Giovanni, and the whole background floods with blood as the Commendatore is killed.

It's an effective way to open the opera and it does place us directly in the mind of Don Giovanni. Elsewhere lighting, colour and projections similarly reflect mood and character, from the ice blue calculating coolness of his re-encounter with Donna Elvira, to the warmth of the golden wood panelling - and all the sincerity of wood-panelling - as he attempts to charm and seduce Zerlina. Although there's complicity on the part of Donna Anna here, there's little doubt which side of the fence this Don Giovanni lies on. There's no sympathy for the devil here - he's an opportunist, an egotist, a snake with no care or feeling for anyone but himself, who will even betray his only faithful companion (Leporello's devotion being truly dogged) just to add another name to his list. The Commendatore is killed without a qualm and without a second thought, he seduces Zerlina in front of Masetto and, in this version, he even has Don Ottavio suffer the indignity of Donna Anna submitting to him again, even after all he has done, while he sings 'Dalla sua pace'. That hits home painfully.

The attention to the staging is strong then, as it often is with Kasper Holten and in the capable hands of Es Devlin, but as with other Holten productions I've seen (Die Tote Stadt, Eugene Onegin), while the spectacle is fully expressive of the music, Holten is not so strong directing singers as actors. All of them are a little bit stiff here and tend to feel like they are going through the motions. Fatally however, the lack of drive must primarily be considered to be down to Nicola Luisotti's leaden and uninspired conducting of the orchestra. Everything plods along, or not so much plods as smoothly sails along with no sense of the dynamic or the darkness that underlies Mozart's score. It's as if the conductor wants to downplay the cruder underscoring of Mozart's dramatic flair, and that's a bad decision. The fortepiano recitative doesn't enliven matters at all either, but some of the sense of drama is restored by the conclusion, even if the actual staging lets it down here.

The projections, it has to be said, do a terrific job of conjuring up all kinds of phantom imagery and an abstract sense of Don Giovanni being consumed by his own ego. The Commendatore, as such, appears to be nothing more than a projection of Don Giovanni's descent into madness. The libretto doesn't really support this idea and it makes the staging of it a little awkward. Donna Elvira screams not at the appearance of the stone man, but at a glimpse she catches into Don Giovanni's madness. Leporello sees the statue of the Commendatore and reads the inscription on it, but turns away at the final scene as if he's not part of it. The stage does indeed become deserted by the time of the epilogue, showing a Don Giovanni trapped in a madness of his own creation. Or even perhaps one laid for him by the enemies who deliver their final verdict ('Questo è il fin') off-stage. The problem is that there's not much sense in the direction of a building crisis to what finally drives Don Giovanni over the edge.

The lack of fire (no pun intended on how the finale is delivered) in the performances is also there unfortunately in the singing. There's a good cast here and they are all very capable in the roles, but with perhaps one exception, there's not much that really stands out and impresses. Mariusz Kwiecień has the looks and the voice for Don Giovanni, and the experience (this performance is his 100th in the role he tells us in the BD extra features), but he doesn't have the necessary charm or charisma to fully inhabit or bring something personal to the role. I've seen Alex Esposito play Leporello a few times now, and like his Papageno, these Mozart roles suit his style, voice and personality well - more so I think that his otherwise fine work as a Rossini bass. He has a way of getting to the underlying humanity of the characters beneath their comic exteriors. His key aria, 'Madamina, il catalogo è questo' is good, but it's not particularly well directed and as a consequence lacks impact.

The same can be said of Malin Byström's Donna Anna. She has character and a good voice, but she's not supported elsewhere.  Her aria 'Or sai chi l'onore' for example is well sung, but with Luisotti holding the orchestra back from emphasising those emotional high points, it just doesn't hit home the way it should. Véronique Gens is the one notable exception to the casting here. She has a great voice for baroque opera and opera seria and has everything that is required for a substantial role like Donna Elvira. She stands out so far above everyone else here however and is in such a different league that she's almost miscast for this production. I also liked Elizabeth Watts' Zerlina - she's a fine singer and there's plenty of character in her voice and her performance. Antonio Poli's Don Ottavio was a little stiff and characterless, but Alexander Tsymbalyuk's Commendatore was powerfully declaimed.

On Blu-ray, the High Definition presentation of the performance is superb. Although the stage is mostly in darkness to allow the projections to be effective, the image is clear and detailed. The stereo and surround mixes bring out the colour of the music and singing. The Introduction in the extra features gives a good overview of the production, and there's a little more consideration of the nature of Don Giovanni's women and how Mozart writes for them in another featurette. Kasper Holten and Es Devlin also provide a full-length commentary for the opera. The enclosed booklet has a good essay by William Richmond on the changing faces of Don Juan in literature and film over the ages. The Blu-ray is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Verdi - Il Trovatore (Salzburg 2014 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

Salzburger Festspiele, 2014

Daniele Gatti, Alvis Hermanis, Anna Netrebko, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Diana Haller, Francesco Meli, Plácido Domingo, Riccardo Zanellato, Gerard Schneider, Miloš Bulajić, Raimundas Juzuitis

Medici, ARTE Concert - August 2014

The Di Luna family seem to have fallen on hard times in the 2014 Salzburg Festival production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. Like many other once aristocratic families with large expensive estates to manage, their home is now open as a museum to the general public as a means of paying for its upkeep. This one in particular has some colourful history attached to it. The eldest son, Ferrando, takes on the role of tour guide and tells the latest group of tourists all about how the fortunes of the Di Luna family went into decline following the death of the youngest son, consumed in the same fire where they burnt an old witch accused of putting a curse on him.

This isn't a bad way to present the 15th century melodrama of Il Trovatore. The opera opens with a tale that relates the background of the story, and unquestionably, it's this historical event that is to continue to have grave repercussions for the Di Luna family. It's perhaps not a device that can be sustained for the whole of the work, so Latvian director Alvis Hermanis - who brought Alphonse Mucha paintings spectacularly to life in La Monnaie's Jenůfa last year - works on a similar 'Night at the Museum' idea here, where the paintings in the galleries come to life and recreate the past. It's not an ideal arrangement, requiring the cast to make some awkward on-stage quick changes, but the crimson colour scheme looks fabulous and there could even be come conceptual merit to the enterprise.

Perhaps it's the troubadour reference, but this intentions of this production of Il Trovatore reminded me of the concept of George Benjamin's and Martin Crimp's Written on Skin. It's about looking back at history and bringing the past back to life through art, through painting, through the power of storytelling. And, of course, through the power of opera as well. It's not a grand concept by any means, but Alvis Hermanis manages to apply it to Il Trovatore without interfering too much with the primary purpose of the opera to entertain and inspire passions through storytelling, since that is also essentially the primary purpose of the troubadour.

It's not uncommon to apply such a distancing framing device to operas (mostly bel canto works) where the plot is a little over-heated or lacking in credibility. Although the plot of Il Trovatore can be expressed in such terms, it doesn't necessarily need a modern framing device because Verdi's score is powerful enough to carry you along through the roaring melodrama. Aside from the abundance of memorable melodies, arias and choruses, the music also succeeds in how it is able to give full dramatic expression to the heightened sentiments of the characters without adding to the hysteria.

Those arrangements seemed to be slightly restrained here as conducted by Daniele Gatti to the point that where very familiar pieces aren't immediately recognisable. I would be reluctant to judge it on the highly compressed live sound-mix for an internet stream, but there does seem to be some holding back from the traditional playing of Verdi at full-tilt, withholding in the process some of the pleasures that come with it in this particular work. On the other hand, it does reveal some of the musicality and beauty of Verdi's writing. Some of the choices however may be determined by the staging - there are no hammers on anvils in the art gallery of this production, for example - but in scenes such as the conclusion where the impact is all-important, it hits home powerfully.

In terms of the singing or the playing of the characters however there was little such compromise. The only real constraint on some of the performers was the necessity of changing costumes in their transformation from museum attendants in modern dress to historical figures in period costume, while continuing to keep singing at the same time. Anna Netrebko seemed to be half in and half out of a dress in some scenes (not that I'm complaining), but it scarcely mattered as far as her performance is concerned. She might not be the ideal Leonora, but she certainly has the ability, the voice and the charisma to carry it off. She's deservedly the star attraction here and remains riveting to watch, never giving anything less than total commitment to the role. If this production itself is less than perfect, Netrebko's raises this Il Trovatore to one that is well worth seeing.

Whether she was well-matched here with Plácido Domingo's Conte di Luna however was difficult to judge. Domingo was announced as indisposed due to illness and his subsequent performances were all cancelled, but he still took to the stage to perform for the live broadcast. He was visibly unwell and struggling for breath, but held up remarkably well even if his performance as the Count is still very much in baritenor mode. Marie-Nicole Lemieux played Azucena exceptionally well. Her account of the Zingarella's fate and her chilling closing exclamations could hardly be more dramatically delivered. Francesco Meli combined power with a rare delicacy as Manrico. The song of the troubadour should have the power to bewitch and enchant, particularly given the requirements of this staging, and that was all here.

Links: ARTE Concert, Medici.tv, Salzburg Festival

Saturday 13 September 2014

Mozart - The Magic Flute (NI Opera, 2014 - Belfast)

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.