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The Magic Flute

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Merry Opera Company
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith

Queen of the Night - The Magic Flute - Merry Opera

Merry Opera pride themselves on delighting newcomers and steadfast opera-goers alike, wanting to destroy the impression that opera is an elitist art form. It’s a noble aim, and certainly one to which past shows have come close. Can this new production live up to their previous offerings?

This time Kit Hesketh-Harvey (director and librettist) brings his wit and re-imaginings to the Magic Flute. Not afraid to re-work the entire story, Hesketh-Harvey introduces a whole new plot line—Mozart’s life. This merry new production flits between a dying Mozart concocting and rehearsing his newly-written Magic Flute, and characters from the opera-proper.

Tamino doubles as the newly invented role of Mozart (his wig to represent the part switch) and Pamina also plays his wife Constanza. Mozart’s librettist Schikaneder doubles as Papageno, a hint to historical fact as Schikaneder was part of the original performances. Such doubling continues throughout the cast. The initial construction of the concept is convincingly delivered.

Magic Flute is a tricky hybrid as it’s part opera and part pantomime. This panto element is often lost, along with many humorous aspects, unless a convincing translation is conceived and Hesketh Harvey’s additional plot line aids in this area. When Mozart is conducting extracts of his new opera, the other cast members lounge around as if in rehearsal and boo, cheer and call out ‘he’s behind you’, freely buoying the atmosphere.

There is some fabulous singing and comic acting from James Harrison (Papageno), and a tenderly portrayed Pamina (Daisy Brown) provides the highlights of the evening. Unfortunately that pretty much rounds up the good bits, bar some fun from the three ladies.

The show was miscast; the biographies suggest a super-strong team, but the performance didn’t quite match. Stephen Hose MDs for the group again and, despite sterling work on the piano, the four-piece band isn’t as tight as the jazzy group concocted for their previous La Traviata. Despite her flamboyant stage presence, Clare Egan shakily struggled through Queen of the Night coloratura and barely hit the high notes. Lawrence Olsworth-Peter took on Tamino, a role that seemed too much of a stretch for this young-voiced tenor. One wonders why Hesketh-Harvey has directed a camped up Monostatos whom as a result he loses all menace in his lust for Pamina.

Hesketh-Harvey’s concept falls apart in the second half, the parallels between Mozart and Tamino’s quest are tenuously foisted upon the action. More interesting is Mozart/Tamino attempting to join Sarasto’s brotherhood. These characteristics of Freemasonry bring out the many allusions to their work in Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Fiona Russel’s period costumes are fun and frivalous on a clearly tight budget but the period effect is drowned by the bare black, cable-clad, box studio walls. The minimal set serves its purpose, but curtains cladding the studio walls would have transformed this production.

Hesketh-Harvey has looked to complicating the plot in order to make the piece accessible and relevant to new audiences. Despite a promising start, the extra twists lend to confusion and distance the audience. The cast work hard, and the quality of their acting cannot be flawed, but by the end of the show it feels like they’re flogging a dead horse. The show loses pace and it is only Brown’s exquisite final aria and the comedic Papegeno/Papagena double act that keep the audience watching.

The concept certainly deserves a rework; Hesketh-Harvey’s dialogue is sharp and funny and deserves a second chance.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis