Posts Tagged ‘ The Magic Flute ’

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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Pub opera: Pint, Peanuts and Puccini

This feature first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

“Opera has died and we need to perform CPR on it.” So declared Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director of London’s newest (and smallest) opera house last week. The King’s Head pub theatre in Islington – London’s oldest fringe venue – has just announced that it will be switching permanently to musical productions, starting with Rossini’s Barber of Seville on 6 October.

The King’s Head theatre opened in 1970 and countless esteemed thesps have treaded its boards: Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, Rupert Graves, Joanna Lumley. So why, after all this time, has the venue decided to change tack?

Of course, The King’s Head isn’t the first fringe venue to switch actors for altos – nor is Spreadbury-Maher a beginner in the field. As the artistic director of The Cock Tavern Theatre, he recently directed OperaUpClose’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème which has passed the 100 performance benchmark and is now playing at the Soho Theatre. Yet nothing about opera as a form seems to lend itself to the small-scale: gestures are exaggerated, emotions are deliberately overstated and opera singers are trained to project their voices to fill cavernous opera houses. Why, then, has the pub opera phenomenon taken off?

One obvious reason is the ticket prices. Jonathan Miller – whose Cosí fan tutte is currently playing to packed audiences at Covent Garden – is one of the new patrons for The Little Opera House at The King’s Head (along with Mark Ravenhill and Joanna Lumley). Speaking to the Observer recently he said “We are living in a completely unfair society. Many people are very underprivileged in this country, while there are these huge ornamental opera productions being staged. There is something immoral about it.”

Notoriously, opera-goers are white, wealthy, middle-class and middle-aged. And with prices at Covent Garden soaring into the hundreds, it’s hardly surprising that younger people are put off. Tickets for Spreadbury-Maher’s Barber of Seville, on the other hand, are £15 (£13 for concessions): startlingly affordable, as opera goes.

But these productions are not just popular with audiences: pub opera can provide a much needed training ground for young opera singers. While up-and-coming actors have been able to cut their teeth on the fringe scene for years in London, there are limited opportunities for singers – many of whom have studied on opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama or the Royal Academy of Music.

The King’s Head is not entirely altruistic, of course – pub opera is good business at the moment. Highly trained, enthusiastic, young musicians are willing to perform great music for miniscule fees. And a swathe of new austerity-age audiences are not willing to pay the prices demanded by the big venues.

Upstairs at the Gatehouse is an already established pub opera house and Oliver-John Ruthven will be the musical director for Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the venue from 4 November. For Ruthven, pub opera gives the audience the chance to view opera in a “microscopic way” while the informal setting “allows for a far greater potential for the audience’s world to mix with that of the performers.” Jonathan Miller agrees: the setting is all important. “In doing operas on a very intimate scale, in front of an audience of a hundred at the most, you renovate them.” Miller wants to strip opera of the window-dressing: the gilded venues, the symphony orchestra, the “ridiculous” tradition of dressing up to watch a production.

It’s worth remembering, however, that operas were composed for the gilded venues and symphony orchestras. And while La Bohème’s subject matter chimes with the “everyday” surroundings – above a pub, with a slightly dodgy piano – other works might not fit in so seamlessly. Oliver-John Ruthven warns that this new trend won’t suit all such works: “Not all operas are suited to pub venues because their scale is simply too much to compress into such small spaces.” It remains to be seen how well Mozart’s fantastical The Magic Flute will work in a small venue, or whether the prim and polished characters of Rossini’s Barber of Seville will look impossibly out of place in a room behind the bar.

For now, there can be little doubt that pub opera is in the ascendant. Whether the trend will continue beyond the current “age of austerity” will depend on whether these productions can be more than simply opera in a small space. Pub productions must provide a different experience of opera. It can’t just be a case of Puccini with a pint.

The Barber of Seville previews at The King’s Head, Islington from 5 October; 0844 477 1000. The Magic Flute opens at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate on 4 November; 020 8340 3488.