Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Magic Flute - review

Written by: Wendy Haines (@Wendyfer1)

Riverside Studios, London

The Merry Opera Company were founded in 2010 with the intention of touring new interpretations of classic opera translated into English. Their new adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute was translated and directed by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who is no stranger to adapting operas. All the music in the show is from the original opera, but a touch of pantomime, the English language and the story of Mozart’s death have been added to make the performance more accessible. The question to ask is whether the production is dealing with the things that they claim make classic opera inaccessible, and whether the company’s additions actually help this one in particular.

It is questionable as to why making Mozart accessible means creating a pantomime; it suggests that the general public are not interested in serious work, but nevertheless new interpretations of often stale operas are good progress for the genre. Translating The Magic Flute into English may have been a good move, but the struggles facing opera as an industry more likely come from its near untouchable traditions, cost and lack of new writing as opposed to its musical style and performance in foreign languages. Consider that actually having the lyrics in a foreign language draws attention to the notation, whereas singing the words in English is distracting and on this occasion revealed their simplicity.

Despite these questions, this performance at Riverside Studios is mostly relishable. Unsurprisingly, the music is performed expertly by the chamber orchestra. Music Director Stephen Hose has done a fantastic job picking musicians, including most of the singers. A lot of the enjoyment of the show can be credited to the music, as some of the new, scripted sections are mediocre. The narration from Papagena/Floti (Gemma Morsley) was slightly cringeworthy.

Photo: Polly Hancock
The cast is rotating, but on the evening of the 23rd Elisabeth Marshall and Claire Egan gave beautiful performances as the Queen of the Night and Pamina respectively. In their solos Egan was particularly moving and Marshall displayed real technical skill. The chorus of three ladies (Catarina Sereno, Fleur de Bray and Kristan Finnigan) made an elegant vocal trio while bringing a welcome touch of cheekiness. Unfortunately it must be said that Sereno showed less discipline as a chorus member, often fidgeting out of character when she wasn’t singing.

The double-edged story of The Magic Flute and Mozart’s death, suspected through poison, is very effective, but it feels like they need much more time to be shown in parallel. A television series would have been more appropriate, as Mozart’s story felt a little untouched. My only other criticism is the intrusive use of a thunder board during the Queen of the Night’s aria. The music is highly emotive just by itself – the aggressive, irritating twang of thunder was not necessary as a companion to Mozart’s skilful composition.

This performance gains its strength from good musical direction, and it is clear why The Magic Flute takes a place in the canon. The Merry Opera Company’s intentions are noble, bringing opera to the masses, and they have not failed to produce good entertainment. The singing is mostly better than the acting so by all means shut your eyes and enjoy the tunes, but by the furies, demand they stop that ridiculous thunder.

This production runs until 3 March 2013. 

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