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The Magic Flute

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, text by Emmanuel Schikaneder, English translation by Carol Ann Duffy
Opera North on tour: Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2003)

A stark large wooden doorway - really a henge - stands in the centre of the stage, bathed in moonlight. As the overture progresses, the lighting goes from moonlight to sunlight to darkness. The conflict between darkness and light, night and day, dominates the opera, and Jean Kalman's design - he was responsible for both set and lighting - uses all the resources of the modern-day lighting designer to parallel the movement of ideas in the lighting.

Those who expect a traditional performance of the Singspiel (Mozart did not call it an opera) from this Opera North production, which was first performed at the Leeds Grand in April this year, would be - not disappointed, for that suggests it is not up to scratch - but perhaps jolted by it. And that, I suggest, is a good thing.

Director Tim Supple (formerly artistic director of the Young Vic) has co-ordinated a really imaginative design team in Kalman, Tom Pye (costumes) and Tom Roden (movement), and together they have produced a 21st century reading of the piece which really works. There were some flashes of sheer brilliance - the Queen of the Night as Diana Dors hit just the right note and Pamina, in ankle socks and utilitarian (almost, dare I say it, frumpy) skirt and sweater was the picture of innocence, a total contrast to her mother. The three ladies, in outfits which somehow managed to combine the suggestion of riding habits and power-dressing business suits, conveyed a sense of menace with undoubted sexual allure, thus creating an ambiguity about the whole atmosphere which surrounds the Queen of the Night.

Those who quarrel with modern dress versions of pieces such as this miss, I think, something very important, the fact that we can read modern far better than historical costumes. Character suggestions are therefore almost subliminal and subtle variations are possible. The creative team used every opportunity offered by each specialism to reinforce the director's vision.

It has to be admitted, however, that nothing can disguise the fact that, in the second act at any rate, there are times when all the director can do is have the characters stand and sing. Supple recognises this and accepts it, which is wise: to do otherwise would be to detract from the music.

And, of course, Mozart's music is glorious, and he is well served here by an excellent cast. Some were less strong of voice than others but that was only evident very occasionally. Matthew Sharp was an hilarious Papageno, but it is a gift of a part to an actor and Sharp is clearly as much an actor as a singer. Thora Einarsdottir was a most appealing Pamina: she looked and moved like a teenager, and sang beautifully. Philippe Do did the best anyone can do with Tamino: he's on a lot, sings a lot, but doesn't have much of a character, so in terms of acting there's not really a lot to get your teeth into!

The days of large (huge?) aging sopranos and tenors playing juvenile leads are long gone and every single one of the cast looked right as well as singing well. There's always the fear that the fat lady will return - I saw a Bohème about five years ago where the Mimi was twice the size of Rudolfo, in all dimensions! - but here the look and the sound combined to produce an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable Magic Flute.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan