The Magic Flute - English Touring Opera - Hackney Empire, 7 March 2014
Another excellent production from English Touring Opera brings their total of spring season must-sees to three out of three. After ENO's tired, laboured Magic Flute a few months ago proved that even Mozart can sink beneath directorial dross comes this fresh, sparkling and joyously performed remedy.
As the familiar overture plays, the stage fills with a snaking line of partygoing yuppies in drunken pursuit of Tamino. Before they can drag him into their orgy, the three Ladies magic them away. Are we in Tamino's dream, or his subconscious - or is it his real, hedonistic life he is trying to escape?
More importantly, are we about to be aesthetically assaulted by an '80s update? The answer - thankfully - is no. There are no more puzzling off-script excursions. Once the singing begins, the yuppies disappear, as do the shoulder pads, and English Touring Opera's production reverts to straightforward narrative.
It's a stylish show, and Liam Steel has an inventive way with Chloe Lamford's single set. The dark blue tiered box is backed with a window/mirror that makes for a dramatic entry - such as the Queen of the Night's, complete with a flowing silver train that spreads over the entire stage. Trap doors add another dimension, most memorably in the pop-up flock of toy parrots that emerges when Papageno and Papagena unite. An assortment of light sticks, glowing balls and illuminated lampshade skirts doesn't provide any enlightenment beyond the literal, but at least hints at an underlying theme.
James Southall's brisk conducting kept the pit as lively as the stage, and if the overture felt a little rushed, it was at least at one with the peculiar antics above.
Jeremy Sams' English translation may sacrifice singability for wit, but it makes a strong argument for translated opera. Papageno's jokes are immediate, and the audience laughs in the right places instead of ten seconds before or after. The packed Hackney Empire audience, the usual mix of opera buffs and curious locals, got it straight away.
Their curtain call favourite was the Queen of the Night, and quite rightly. Samantha Hay's dazzling coloratura and fearless top notes drew audible gasps - and unlike many, she could fill out the lower notes with equal power.
Papageno was mellifluously sung by Wyn Pencarreg. Forgoing the village-idiot stereotype, his lugubrious bearing captured the birdman's inner sadness - eventually swept away by Papagena (the delightfully bird-like Caryl Hughes). Anna Patalong's Pamina was sweetly assured, though her dark, powerful soprano will surely suit her for heavier roles in the future. She was well-matched to Ashley Catling, a heroic Tamino. ETO stalwart Andrew Slater hit the low notes as Sarastro. Strength in depth was amply displayed by the Three Boys (here, sopranos) and Ladies.
photos: Robert Workman