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The Magic Flute

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder
Opera North
The Lowry (Lyric Theatre)
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Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute was an immediate success when it opened in 1791. Its popularity has stretched over two centuries and it is still one of the most regularly produced in the canon. The warmth of its reception from a packed house this evening, in the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre, has the feel of watching a much-loved old thesp tread the boards—no longer in his pomp, but still well worth the ticket price.

Prince Tamino, lost in a strange land, is rescued from a monster by three (light-sabre-wielding) ladies, servants of the Queen of the Night. The Queen shows the handsome prince a portrait of her daughter, Pamina, currently being held captive by her enemy, Sarastro. Tamino falls in love the instant he sees the portrait. The Queen sends him and Papageno, the bird catcher, on a mission to rescue Pamina. During the quest, Tamino learns that Sarastro is a force for good not evil.

However, he and Papageno (who also, but less nobly and determinedly, wants to cherchez la femme) must undergo several trials to prove themselves worthy of their brides. Tamino, of course, is up to the task. Papageno fails abysmally, but is granted happiness, anyway. As Sarastro finally vanquishes the Queen of the Night, freeing the lovely daughter from her mother's toxic clutch, we realise what we already knew: that women need to be guided by men. (Add 21st-century irony to taste.)

James Brining’s first outing directing an opera provides us with a framing story. A little girl struggles to sleep while her father is holding a dinner party in the adjacent room. Moments later, her angry mother arrives, bearing documents which an equally angry father rips to shreds. The mother hugs her daughter and attempts to leave with her. The father intervenes. The mother is driven from the house. The little falls into a dream / nightmare in which a key theme centres on a mother and a father-figure, battling for dominion over a daughter—The Magic Flute. The father-figure will win out. Perhaps this is Mozart according to “Fathers for Justice”?

Colin Richmond’s design is an eyeful, perhaps overactive for some, but this is a tale of magical happenings in a mysterious realm. The physical settings are reminiscent of Viennese palaces and Douglas O’Connor’s video designs are judiciously applied—the scene where the three child-spirits are transported on the back of a giant bird is particularly captivating. The costuming lends a pleasing ambiguity to the moral heart of the story: red nuns serving the neo-fascisticly dressed brotherhood, while the children might just as easily be red-themed Hitler Youth as boy and girl scouts. The Sound of Music viewed through a 21st century prism?

Papageno is, of course, not meant to be the sharpest knife in the drawer and some may wonder whether the decision to play him with an Irish accent sails dangerously close to pandering to prejudicial stereotypes. Setting that to one side, Gavin Ring wins the audience over and receives one of the warmest ovations of the night.

ON newcomers Kang Wang (Tamino) and Vuvu Mpofu (Pamina) give encouraging performances as the two young lovers. Wang has a gentle warmth to his tone that I hope he will exploit to the full in the coming years.

The opera was written for specific individuals, whose vocal talents ranged from the coloratura to the merely competent. Even suffering from a cold, John Savournin makes a more than decent fist of one of the vocally challenging roles (Sarastro). Savournin puts in a real trouper’s shift, managing to touch the bottom of the barrel (that notorious low F) without scraping it. As Queen of the Night, Samantha Hay relishes the musical demands of the role and brings a regal passion to her every involvement (I couldn’t help wanting the Queen to win, just this once).

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson