The Magic Flute, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Upstairs at the GatehouseThe Magic Flute, Mozart
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Translation: Stephen Fry
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

With panpipes, enchanted bells and a family tree more complex than any Shakespeare ever penned, The Magic Flute is utter nonsense. But that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of Mozart’s best-loved works. Hampstead Garden Opera’s production, directed by James Hurley, deals with the sillness and the childish japes, much more successfully than the darker parts of the tale.

Prince Tamino is rescued from an evil demon (it’s a serpent in the original) by three ladies who work for the Queen of the Night. Said nocturnal monarch asks Tamino to rescue her daughter, Pamina, whom she says has been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro. Tamino, on seeing a picture of Pamina, falls instantly in love – as only opera heroes can. He is accompanied on his quest by a feather-brained bird catcher, Papageno – who provides every laugh of the evening.

William Balkwill’s Tamino is all chinos and cut-glass RP: Balkwill does a good turn as the dull but nice “Prince Charming” – though his voice sounds a touch strained at times. Papageno, played by Samuel Queen, gets all the good lines in an otherwise surprisingly pedestrian libretto by Stephen Fry. What Queen lacks in richness of tone, he makes up for in charisma. A nod should go to costume designer Madeleine Millar for the brilliant bird-patterned “onesies” (an adult baby-grow) sported by Papageno and Papagena.

But the men are outshone by the women in this production. Viki Hart, as the Queen of the Night dazzles with pin-point coloratura and a beautifully luscious sound. The Queen’s famous aria is without doubt one of the highlights of the evening, sparking calls of “Bravo” from the audience. As her daughter, Pamina, Raphaela Papadakis is endearing and moving by turns. Her mellow sound proves particularly poignant in singing of Pamina’s pain when she thinks Tamino no longer loves her. Elsewhere, the three ladies (Helen Bailey, Siân Cameron and Charlotte King) are impressive.

Several motifs have been added to Mozart’s original by Hurley: a doll’s house, a voodoo Barbie and Ken (probably not coming to a store near you soon), vast quantities of alcohol and a giant toy box. The voodoo dolls create some arresting scenes, proving particularly effective as a literalisation of the Queen of the Night’s psychological manipulation of her daughter. The doll’s house, however, is more perplexing – I think the story is supposed to be taking place inside it, though I’m not sure.

The Dionysus Ensemble, under the baton of Musical Director Oliver-John Ruthven, has some shaky moments and it occasionally feels as if they aren’t quite working with the singers but parallel to them. Generally, Hurley’s production rattles too quickly over the more complex plot points, making the story hard to follow for those unfamiliar with the tale and it loses momentum during the “Masonic” scenes in Sarastro’s court. But there are some stunning moments in this production – courtesy of a couple of true stars-in-waiting.

Runs until 14 November

This review first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

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