Scottish Opera are at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh (5th, 9th, 11th, 13th and 15th June) with Mozart’s much loved “The Magic Flute”, and this production, a revival by Sir Thomas Allen of his 2012 production, is in every sense of the words, unique and individual.
In this “Magic Flute” world, we are transported visually to an imaginary Victorian “steam-punk” world that owes more to the imaginations of HG Wells and Jules Verne than the fairy-tale fantasy world of the original. With its visual roots firmly set in the old mass-employment industrial eras of coal and steel, this is a very Scottish production that is a homage to our industrial heritage and emerging enlightenment as much as it is to the spirit of Mozart’s own original work.
The Magic Flute is (and always will be) a work of so many contrast and questions; one of the great works created towards the end of Mozart’s all too short life when he was at his musical and creative peak, but contrastingly from the very beginning, high-opera created for a mass-market, non-elitist theatrical audience. The very format of the opera, “Singspiel” (a form of German light opera, typically with spoken dialogue, and often with magic and fantasy in the story) is perhaps one reason why this work has always been so popular with audiences; this is opera meets pantomime meets variety theatre.
At its core this is a simple (almost childish) story of good and evil, magic, fantasy, enlightenment and true love, but it is the characters in it that give this story a depth far past its roots, and central to everything here is our “common man” Papageno, and Richard Burkhard is so obviously having so much fun on-stage with both this role and his dialogue. This, coupled with the vocal talent that you would expect and the comic timing for the dialogue required for this role, makes Richard Burkhard a Papageno that many people will remember for a long time to come.
This production of The Magic Flute is in English and not German, and the re-write of Papageno’s spoken dialogue with its many contemporary references might already have ruffled some purists’ feathers, but given our visual setting for this production, no other language would have suited this production and Papageno is after all a stage comedian.
With set and costume design by Simon Higlett, and lighting design by Mark Jonathan, we are taken into a world of magic symbolism fusing with Victorian industrial power and the combined results are visually stunning and it is obvious that great care has been taken at every stage of this production’s visual look. There are times, however, when the design visuals are so strong that they risk at times obscuring slightly some of the operatic vocal talent on stage. Fortunately that risk is counter- balanced by some really strong operatic and theatrical performances. Here, our three ladies of the night, First Lady (Jeni Bern), Second Lady (Bethan Langford) and Third Lady (Sioned Gwen Davies) give us performances that are full of Scottish theatrical traditions whilst staying true to Mozart’s musical score and The Queen of the Night (Julia Sitkovetsky) gives an impressive display of the vocal techniques required for this role.
We are of course in this often strange world of operatic men and women falling in love with people they have never even met, and Tamino (Peter Gijsbertsen) and Pamina (Gemma Summerfield) have that ability not only to create individual identities for their own characters but work well together as our “love interest” couple as they face their trials and ordeals on their paths to enlightenment. Oddly in this work, our hero Tamino is completely up-staged at every turn by our “common man” Papageno, and I suspect that Mozart knew exactly what he was doing here.
The Magic Flute is by default set in a fantasy world, and that allows for a huge degree of creative licence by anyone who wants to play with this story and its characters, and Sarastro (Dingle Yandell), Monostatos (Adrian Thompson), Papagena (Sofia Troncoso) and our three spirit guides make this an enjoyable production from start to finish that never seems to drag in time.
You can spend years (many people have) trying to decode the symbolism of The Magic Flute, and its almost childish interpretations of Ancient Egyptian mythology (and a little bit of Zoroastrianism too) and thinly veiled “Masonic Lodge” connections will, I think, never be fully explained or resolved. Equally questionable is the very firm “place in the order of things” that women are given here. Whatever your interpretation, the one thing that is never in question here is the genius of Mozart’s music, brought to life tonight by Tobias Ringborg conducting The Orchestra of Scottish Opera. This might be classic opera, but there are times when any words just seem superfluous to Mozart’s music and I can imagine somehow in my mind, Mozart playing a double game here of pleasing his audience at one level whilst being very subversive to the establishment of the day on another level. Whatever your views, the audience tonight were o obviously enjoying this production and the applause at the end of the evening was well-deserved.
Review by Tom King