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Robert Davies made a remarkable impact when he
stood in as Papageno late in the run of
English Touring Opera's 'The Magic Flute';
RODERIC DUNNETT profiles him, and
celebrates the progress of other ETO cast members


Like Robert Hugill [read his review], I was determined to see English Touring Opera's The Magic Flute on its recent tour, and thank goodness I did.

But there was a major reason for catching it at Warwick University. Daniel Grice, their regular and much-praised Papageno, was indisposed, and we were faced with his stand-in. A disaster? Not at all. Robert Davies, bumped up from First Priest, proved not only a fabulous Papageno from start to finish: he was easily one of the most accomplished, subtle performers I have yet witnessed in this rewarding role -- or any other, for that matter.

Robert Davies (far left) as the Reverend Gedge in Britten's 'Albert Herring'. Photo: Glyndebourne on Tour
Robert Davies (far left) as the Reverend Gedge in Britten's 'Albert Herring'. Photo: Glyndebourne on Tour

It's true that Davies is by no means an unknown. A regular for Glyndebourne on Tour (not least as Marcello and one of their back-up Almavivas in Figaro), Glyndebourne Festival performer and understudy -- Morales in Carmen, Dr Falke in Die Fledermaus -- and also prizewinner (the Erich Vietheer Memorial Award), Davies has sung at Le Châtelet (in Les Troyens), Spoleto and Edinburgh (that other Aeneas, in Purcell's Dido), and has appeared with English Pocket Opera, Diva Opera and Opera Box.

As a student Robert Davies was one of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Figaros and Escamillos; he has done the young Luna in Trovatore and a sympathetic Sharpless in Madam Butterfly; and has since touched on both rare and contemporary opera (University College Opera's staging of Lalo's Fiesque; Jonathan Dove's hit commission Flight for Glyndebourne; and another rarity, Ned Rorem's The Robbers).

The voice is so flexible and the presence so agreeable, Robert Davies looks to be a casting director's dream. His Papageno was a hit from the very start, when director Liam Steel -- an inspired choice by ETO's James Conway -- and his designer Chloe Lamford had Mozart's three ladies make his birdcage into his gag.

Robert Davies, a triumph as Mozart's Papageno
Robert Davies, a triumph as Mozart's Papageno

This kind of integral witty idea was still evident by the time Papageno had his first inkling of Papagena (whose clothes artfully mimicked the browns of his): a hilariously acted scene, with Grice's -- and here Davies' -- Papageno plying umpteen lampshades to 'construct' the Papagena of his dreams, papoose and all; or the achingly funny sequence using a flurry of stage hatches (already scampishly used by Steel's boys' trio) to visualise, by means of a bevy of fluffy ducks and animal toys, their future family: a notion as neat, in its way, as Phyllida Lloyd's emotionally dark evocation, in brilliant whites during her Covent Garden Macbeth, of the family the Macbeth pair would never parent: itself a bitter echo/pastiche of the ghoulish Banquo/Fleance family march-past.

Robert Davies is already a performer of marked presence: he somehow contrives to both dominate a stage and remain unassuming at the same time. The voice is to glory in: one recalled the emergence of Darren Jeffery as the Royal Northern College's Falstaff, soon thereafter to join the Covent Garden Young Artists' Programme; or the Guildhall and RSAMD-trained Frenchman Marc Labonette's beautifully evocative Bottom, paired with Rebecca Bottone's sexy Titania, in British Youth Opera's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and sounding like a Gerald Finlay in the making. Both instances, like Davies, of considerable talent emerging for the future.

But Davies' winning sound -- it runs in the family: half-Welsh himself, he is married to the outstanding Welsh soprano and Baroque specialist Elin Manahan Thomas -- suggests something more: as rich as a Bunyan or Pilgrim from The Pilgrim's Progress (harking back to the breathtaking RNCM production by Joseph Ward): less Lieder-like than Roderick Williams (recently Pilgrim at Sadler's Wells, and soon to play the bevy of sinister Shirley-Quirk roles in St Endellion's Death in Venice); a fuller tone than (for instance) the splendid, newly-fledged Rodney Clarke's; more lyrical and less edgy than, say, Christopher Purves. A Hermann Prey kind of voice. In short, a real find.

Andrew Slater, a striking but slightly ill-at-ease Sarastro
Andrew Slater, a striking but slightly ill-at-ease Sarastro

I felt for Andrew Slater: normally a superb and inventive actor (think of his shows for Graham Vick, such as a sensationally good Dr Pangloss in Bernstein's Candide; and terrific in a foppish character role this month in Garsington's Mirandolina). Perhaps surprisingly, Sarastro just didn't yet seem his kind of role (he's a Papageno, really): parts lay too low in the voice, and like Holland Park's Sarastro last year, Tim Mirfin -- who does at least have the lowest notes -- Slater seemed pushed to encompass the role's fullness or bring Sarastro the necessary vocal stature. At Holland Park, one longed for Stephen Gadd, singing the Speaker, or (say) ENO's Pavlo Hunka, to take over Sarastro and lift him up a notch: both have the compass and the presence.

Sarastro (Andrew Slater) and  his masonic team, including Ronald Nairne, Maciek O'Shea and Blake Fischer
Sarastro (Andrew Slater) and his masonic team, including Ronald Nairne, Maciek O'Shea and Blake Fischer

By contrast the RPS Young Artist award-winner Ronald Nairne (to Davies' Papageno: 'You will not be part of our Holy Order ...') proved a finely authoritative, nicely inflected, interestingly characterised white-clad Speaker: possibly a masonic coup in the brewing, one thought. And his two Priest-acolytes, especially in duet (one of them stepping up from the ETO chorus to replace the promoted Davies), were vocally riveting. They were two youngsters: the London-born GSMD-trained baritone Maciek O'Shea and Australian tenor Blake Fischer, an RSCM Peter Moores scholar. I'll be looking out for both of them again.

It's difficult adequately to praise, let alone capture, the vocal delights of tenor Mark Wilde (Tamino), another Graham Vick team player who has excelled for City of Birmingham Opera as, notably, a fabulously sung and acted Madwoman (opposite Rodney Clarke in Curlew River) and a tenor Idamante (Idomeneo). Wilde appeared alongside Slater -- his old sparring-partner in Candide -- once again in this summer's Garsington's Mirandolina, was a memorable Cat in Opera North's Jonathan Dove extravaganza The Adventures of Pinocchio, has taken smaller roles for Netherland Opera, and has added a clutch of more unusual roles (blissfully funny arias as a lyrically optimistic, then outraged Ford in Salieri's superb Falstaff, or a splendid Nadir in the Mozart-Henneberg-Schikaneder The Philosopher's Stone -- both triumphs for Bampton Classical Opera); and who is, vocally at least, a born Tamino.

Mark Wilde
Mark Wilde

I visualise Mark Wilde as a budding Max, Adolar or Huon in Weber (Freischütz, Euryanthe, Oberon), though he has the temperament to play heroic tenor and possibly nasty Kaspar-like roles as well: Verdi clearly beckons -- conceivably Don Carlos -- but surely Wagner (Lohengrin, David in Meistersinger) as well. As this Magic Flute reminded us, he has yet to find visual (as opposed to vocal) romantic passion; he does indignation rather well; and his Britten Madwoman was a miracle of pathos. At his best, Wilde combines the honeyed tone of a Wunderlich, the flexibility of a Langridge, the melodic beauty of a Florez: a voice to die for.

Liam Steel's Flute production (his own company, memorably named 'Stan Won't Dance', has won off-Broadway awards) was a staging of witty conceits but never arch or tiresome 'concepts'. Using his sinuous, dark-suited chorus members in a kind of lurid conga to depict the 'snake' assailing Wilde's bereft Tamino made for a brilliant visual start: for once the serpent, by its overt sexual innuendo, meant something. Above all, Steel and his whole young cast made terrific use of Jeremy Sams' now almost standard translation. How adroitly they made those words sparkle and come across; even more so with ETO's decision to include the full text in surtitles -- all too conscious that 'opera in English' almost invariably ends up inaudible. Not so here.

Copyright © 26 July 2009 Roderic Dunnett,
Coventry UK

















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