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The Magic Flute

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder; English version by Jeremy Sams
Opera North
Leeds Grand Theatre
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For his first ever foray into the world of opera, James Brining—Artistic Director of Leeds Playhouse—has bravely chosen to direct The Magic Flute (1791). Despite its reputation as a crowd-pleaser—the sort of opera you might take young children to—Mozart’s opera is notoriously tricky to stage because of its strange, often confounding plot.

Brining attempts to deal with the opera’s perplexing storyline by framing it as an increasingly wild dream sequence. The production begins with an extended dumb show in which a young girl puts on a record of The Magic Flute while her father throws an elaborate dinner party in the background. When her mother arrives, demanding to see her daughter, it soon becomes clear that the spouses are in the middle of a fractious divorce.

The proceeding action—in which a young woman, Pamina (Vuvu Mpofu), is fought over by her larger-than-life parents, Sarastro (John Savournin) and the Queen of the Night (Samantha Hay)—is therefore framed as the fantasy of an emotionally troubled child. This is a clever idea, and I liked the device of having the girl serve as a witness (although this idea isn’t maintained throughout the production). However, it still doesn’t resolve my issues with Schikaneder’s libretto.

Tamina’s parents are depicted as oppositional forces: Sarastro represents masculinity, light, order and religion, whereas the Queen of the Night stands for femininity, darkness, chaos and paganism. Despite this, it wasn’t clear to me why the Queen of the Night was any worse than Sarastro, the leader of a sinister cult modelled on the stonemasons. Indeed, the character’s overt misogyny and the restrictive outfits worn by the female characters have prompted several critics to invoke Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

I also found myself far more interested in the relationship that develops between bird-catcher Papageno (Gavan Ring) and Papagena (Amy Freston) than the ostensible romantic leads, Tamino (Kang Wang) and Tamina.

Brining may not have managed to overcome my issues with The Magic Flute’s libretto, but there is still much to admire in this production as a whole. Kang Wang and Vuvu Mpofu, both making their Opera North debuts, bring great vocal expression to the leading roles. Samantha Hay hits all the right notes as the Queen of the Night, particularly during her spellbinding rendition of “Der Hölle Rache”. John Savournin brings considerable presence to the role of Sarastro.

The production’s greatest asset, however, is Gavan Ring, who sinks his teeth into the scene-stealing role of Papageno. His warmth and charm serve as an anchor when the libretto’s plot twists become particularly maddening, and—when called upon to deliver dialogue—his is the most confident dramatic performance. Moreover, he forms an irresistible double-act with Amy Freston’s lively and spirited Papagena.

Colin Richmond’s seamless set design is complemented by Chris Davey’s inventive lighting, and Douglas O’Connell’s video projections are often vivid and arresting.

Conductor Richard Haworth responds wonderfully to the textures of Mozart’s immortal score, resulting in a production that captures the ear even if it doesn’t fully engage the heart.

Reviewer: James Ballands