Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Procrastinated Reviews: Scottish Opera "The Magic Flute", Edinburgh Festival Theatre 2012

Not sure of the precise date, but a splendid and memorable performance. Brilliant in almost every respect (except for the tuning of the Three Boys and a distinct lack of bottom end in Sarastro's vocal range - which is sad since that should be the real glory of the part). The steampunk set was glorious, the costumes terrific (umbrellas with propellors!) and the dragon great fun. There was a very clever inverted shadow lighting effect produced by spotlights with a reflective stage. But the best production feature was Monostatos's goons (clad in miners' helmets) whipping out hankies and doing a Morris dance when Papageno fired up his bells (much to the mirth of Pamina).

Director Thomas Allen was Welsh National Opera's Papageno when I first saw the opera back in 1971 or 1972 (it was my first experience of live opera). Suzanne Shakespeare was our Queen of the Night, and ace. Papageno had some splendid comic business, such as his third pipe call (when he is about to hang himself) coming unbidden from the orchestra pit (or his third lot of bell music - when he is high - playing itself. The scene by which I always like to judge productions of Flute, though, is the "Papageno/Papagena" duet near the end. It's extremely difficult to avoid making it unbearably twee, but Thomas Allen managed it, firstly by having the pair play the birdie actions pretty straight, and secondly by the wonderful device of a string of around a dozen nursemaids processing on wheeling gradually diminishing egg-shaped prams. "What could beat a miscellany/Lots of little Papageni?" Even Ingmar Bergman, whose film version I love to bits, only just betters this scene.

Which brings me to the real star of the evening: the translated libretto by Kit Hesketh-Harvey (half of comedy duo Kit and the Widow). In "Ein Madchen oder Weibchen" there are heaps of wonderful plays on Papageno's name (Papagenette, Papagenowhere, Papage-yes....) "Bei Mannern" wasn't full of humour but was a lovely translation all the same, and beautifully sung, and with some lovely extempore flourishes from Papageno. (Honourable mention to Claire Haslin, driving the keyboard glockenspiel down in the pit, for HER wonderful swooshes in her numbers. And the food and wine provided by Sarastro provoked the marvellous "Mr Sarastro bakes exceedingly good cakes" and "Chateauneuf du Papageno" (which beat Thomas Allen's "Draught Guinness!" when I first saw him).

Laura Mitchell as Pamina resembled Gwyneth Paltrow. Ruth Jenkins was a punk Papagena, all striped tights and spiky hair - well, really a feather poll. Richard Burkhard as Papageno also got to do the "Showman's Booth" introduction (during the overture) which acted as a kind of Brechtian alienating device, like its counterpart in Petrouchka.

With all the misogyny shown by Sarastro and his fellow cultists; with the irrational (or at least misinformed) Sarastrophobic hatred Tamino shows at first; with Pamina's abduction "for her own good" and the flogging ordered for Monostatos, it's hard to avoid comparisons between Sarastrism and Islam. And why not? all the great religions teach the same truth, as I used to be reminded during my own time with a group of Neoplatonic Universalists who were at least as obsessed with triangles as the Sarastrists.

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