Part of the charm of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791) lies in the way it entwines universal human experiences – falling in love, searching for meaning, complicated parent-child relationships – with the fantastic and other-worldly. The opera weaves the tale of Pamina (daughter of the Queen of the Night and prisoner of the wicked Sarastro, Priest of the Sun), Tamino (the lost prince sent to rescue her), and his companion, the plucky but lovelorn bird-catcher Papageno. As Tamino and Papageno’s quest progresses, they soon learn that first impressions can be deceptive and nothing in this mythical land is what it seems.
The curtains open on a young girl listening to the overture on her record player while a tense dinner party unfolds below. The party guests appear again as key characters in the opera. Their relation to the girl is never revealed, but the ambiguity serves to enhance the ethereal effect of The Magic Flute’s reverie. The girl appears with Sarastro’s younger followers at various points throughout; we see the opera through her eyes. It is an effective decision from James Brining, an experienced director of musicals who here makes his debut in opera.
Colin Richmond’s set and costume design are a vivid treat for the eyes, matching the whimsy of the opera with rich colour. Gavan Ring is a suitably scruffy Papageno, while Samantha Hay as the Queen of the Night is every inch the glamorous villain in her elaborate, sparkling black costume. Sarastro’s red-cloaked disciples provide a welcome visual reference to contemporary politics in a plot that is essentially about a prince rescuing his princess, fulfilling Brining’s ambition of making a production ‘that has something to say about today.’
If some of the spoken parts of Mozart’s singspiel are a little clunky, this is more than made up for in vocal virtuosity. This production sees three Opera North debuts in Hay, Vuvu Mpofu (Pamina), and Kang Wang (Tamino). Hay is dazzlingly fearsome as the Queen of the Night and her high Fs were bright and accurate, with no hint of strain. Her long-suffering daughter Pamina is brought to life by Mpofu and her beautifully clear soprano – she is surely a star on the rise. Wang masterfully portrays Tamino’s honourable nature and determination with his warm tenor.
Opera North’s veteran singers also deserve credit. Ring combines natural charisma with considerable vocal prowess, deftly displaying both Papageno’s sharp wit and surprising vulnerability. Ring and Amy Freston (Papagena) gave an especially spirited and amusing performance of ‘Papageno and Papagena’, and the audience’s delight at Papageno’s happy ending was palpable. Meanwhile, Lorna James, Helen Évora, and Amy J Payne are hilarious in their turn as the Queen of the Night’s Three Ladies, lightsabers in hand.
Conductor Robert Howarth leads a perfectly stylistic telling of the score. The Orchestra of Opera North played with passion in the instrumental sections as well as providing sensitive, reliable accompaniment for the cast and chorus. The ensemble brought energy and humour befitting Mozart’s comedy in the overture, yet the more serious, tender moments of the opera were handled thoughtfully. The relentlessly slow forward movement of the strings and the mournful wind melodies in Pamina’s aria ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ added to the sense of despondence while still allowing Mpofu to take centre-stage.
The Magic Flute is at Leeds Grand Theatre 20, 22 February, 1 March; The Lowry, Salford Quays 5, 9 March; Theatre Royal Newcastle 12, 15 March; and Theatre Royal, Nottingham 19, 23 March.