Saturday 15th June at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
This self-described ‘kaleidoscopic’ production of Mozart’s opera ‘The Magic Flute’ gave the man next to me a belly laugh so low it felt like it was vibrating downwards and under the seats. Written during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18thcentury, the opera examines the conflict between the philosophies of the time, based on reason and scientific methods, and their perceived opposites; emotion, magic and religion. Prince Tamino (Peter Gijsbertsen) is forced to navigate this debate when the Queen of the Night (Julia Sitkovetsky), says that if he saves her daughter Pamina (Gemma Summerfield) from the tyrant Sarastro (James Creswell), she will grant him Pamina’s hand in marriage: Sarastro comes to represent Enlightenment, and the Queen, emotion.
The set, lighting and costumes of this Scottish Opera production create a brilliantly surreal, uncertain atmosphere. The Queen arrives, treading a moonlight-dappled stage, in a dress glowing with stars. Sarastro and his followers are dressed intimidatingly, first in formal black coats, and later as judges and security guards with purple headlamps reminiscent of Star Wars. The amazingly dynamic set starts off looking like a ramshackle medieval city home, later forming a courtroom, a communal dwelling being lovingly repaired, and a big tent with bright light shining in through holes in its fabric. The implication is that the same societal structures and ideas can be perceived very differently by different people. The confusion evoked when Tamino loses his belief in the Queen’s benevolence and struggles to know where to place his trust is enhanced by the set.
The Queen’s part is renowned for being exceptionally technically demanding, and her song addressed to the audience when she threatens her daughter with abandonment, bringing the role of the music and flute into focus. I sometimes questioned whether the music enhanced or overwhelmed the story and characterisation. The performance is deeply self-aware, with varying levels of success and dark comedy is bravely and successfully used; a noose is casually thrown to a suicidal Papageno, and Monostasos (Adrian Thompson), Pamina’s capturer, lustfully strokes Pamina like a cat when left alone with her. However, there is an unsatisfying removal in Giljsbertsen’s and Summerfield’s portrayals from the darkness of their characters’ situations and painful yearning they feel for each other. This means that the play builds to an anti-climax. As the programme says, light does not exist without the dark. The joy of their reunion appears hollow, a lacklustre shift from the earlier turmoil. I came away feeling as though the latter part of the show was slightly ineffectual.
I was surprised, though, at how deftly and humorously the production linked the older traditions of opera to more contemporary speech and styles. Vernacular language is weaved in flawlessly. Pamina is told that Tamino is a ‘total babe’, Papageno exclaims ‘Bloody hell!’ at the absurdity of his situations and a voluminous blanket-shrouded woman described as an ‘egg with legs’ tells Papageno she is ‘eighteen years and two minutes’ old when asked how old she is. This hits home that the emotions portrayed in the opera are timeless, and I would especially recommend this show to anyone who has been put off opera in the past. Last time I saw an opera, I left the theatre after 40 minutes; this time, I was laughing in disbelief 2 hours in.
Review by James Sullivan
‘The Magic Flute’ will be at Hackney Empire on 20th and 22nd June and Belfast Grand Opera House 27th and 29th June. Tickets available on the venue websites.