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The Power of Music

Performances of 'The Magic Flute' and 'Orfeo'
from Opera North, reviewed by MIKE WHEELER


In many ways The Magic Flute is the most Shakespearean of Mozart's operas, combining as it does serious drama -- with profound moral and spiritual issues at stake -- and knockabout comedy. The acid test of any production is how well it succeeds in convincingly straddling the two worlds, or rather showing them to be two aspects of the same world. Opera North's current production, first staged in Leeds in 2003 and somewhat re-worked for the present tour (Theatre Royal, Nottingham, UK, 22 February 2007), comes through with flying colours.

Square door-frame shapes dominate the set, from the receding series that provides the permanent overall set-up, to the smaller ones, suggesting not only doorways but also prehistoric temples, that are moved around the stage as the action develops. A dark back-drop with pinpoints of starlight descends for the Queen of the Night's first entrance; hanging strands of rope symbolise the labyrinthine physical and spiritual paths the four young leads have to follow. Mountains like a child's torn paper shapes on a huge scale convey the uncomplicated nature of Papageno's world.

The lighting is exceptionally effective, right from the gradual change we watch during the overture, as the main stage slowly darkens while the central square panel at the back becomes brilliantly illuminated -- an emblematic plot outline of devastatingly effective simplicity.

Costumes range from hippy chic (Tamino and Pamina) through Third-World elegance (Sarastro) to the drably functional (female chorus -- the design's one out-of-kilter note; why would Sarastro require the women of his kingdom to dress like 1950s librarians?)

The star of the show has to be Roderick Williams' Papageno. His alert, bright-as-a-button performance held the attention whenever he was on stage. Ed Lyon sang ardently as Tamino, though he was unable to conceal the fact that this is really a rather colourless role. Noriko Urata's Pamina was a much more spunky character (to that extent at least, she is her mother's daughter), which made all the more touching her despair over Tamino's apparent unresponsiveness in his test of silence. Chester Patton's warm, quiet dignity turned Sarastro into a kind of Kofi Annan figure. As Monostatos, Andrew Clarke acted the heavy convincingly enough, but his voice was somewhat under-powered, at least in Act 1; he improved after the interval. Penelope Randall-Davis was in blistering vocal form as the Queen of the Night, Fflur Wyn an appealingly chirpy Papagena.

The reconciliation between the opposing forces at the end was an unexpected gloss on the original, convincingly enough staged not to seem merely glib. Both Tim Supple's direction and Carol Ann Duffy's English translation catch the fun of the piece as well as its seriousness, and conductor Paul McGrath matches it with his reading of the score, tautly-paced or expansive as the moment required.

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Copyright © 4 March 2007 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK


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