The Magic Flute – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Sandra Callard, January 2019
Mozart composed a prolific assortment of music in his short life of thirty five years, before dying suddenly in 1791, and his varied collection, which covers opera, piano concerto, symphony, chamber music, et al, is still avidly listened to today. Leeds’ own Opera North and James Brining, presently Artistic Director of Leeds Playhouse, have now brought a vivid and startling new production of Mozart’s evergreen light opera The Magic Flute to the stage.
This is no staid rerun of the many previous productions, but rather a lengthy, intricate and fulsome retelling of the familiar story. Alongside the numerous period, religious and occasionally modern costumes and scenery, marches an astonishing array of technical expertise, turning traditional scenes into spectacles which are recognisable but totally original.
Honourable good guy, Tamino, sung with passion by tenor Kang Wang, falls in love with good girl, Pamina, daughter of the wicked Queen of the Night, and sung beautifully by South African soprano Vuvu Mpofu. Tamino calls on Papageno, bird-catcher for the Queen, to help him win Pamina. Papageno is sung by Irish tenor Gavan Ring, who offers the spoken parts in an over-the-top Irish accent which is enchantingly funny. His quaint costume of apparent wings of wooden branches and various other appendages, sets him apart as a character who is not so perfect, but one we can identify with.
The Queen of the Night is sung by Samantha May, who sings probably the most difficult aria in opera, the ‘Der Holle Rache’, in which she alternates singing the words and then only the notes, and very high notes at that. The result is astounding, and May acquitted herself extremely well.
The theme that follows is not new. It is good overcoming bad, it is love triumphing over hate and it is egalitarianism prevailing. All good and recognisable things, but Brining’s production has the edge on others because of the occasions when a scene of fantasy and improbability suddenly gives out feelings of familiarity and recognition and almost common sense. The children who appear as mentors to adults in trouble or in temptation is a meaningful and touching move, and the wonderful Papageno, strange and other-worldly though he appears to be, is a jolt of normality as he longs for the very ordinariness that most of us embody.
The impressive technical themes of lighting and superimposed images are beautifully done and very appropriate to each scene. During the trials of Pamina and Tamino, who are made to withstand the furies of fire and water to test their love, and the addition of cascading water and fiery infernos enables their torment to be charged with an extra touch of drama. Nowadays special effects on stage are not unusual, and when used selectively, as in this production, they can add reams to the audience’s enjoyment.
The chorus of Opera North and the Opera North orchestra perform to their unique ultimate, and because we always expect it, we rarely give them praise. We should, however, do so, because they are not just good, they are relentlessly and persistently good – no easy achievement, but one we can and do rely on.
The Magic Flute may be an old favourite with opera lovers, but this unique and wonderful production makes you look upon it with eyes anew.
images: Alastair Muir