The Magic Flute
Bath Spa University School of Music and Performing Arts
The Michael Tippett Centre
Thursday 22 November, 2012
A brilliant performance of The Magic Flute can be an utterly spell-binding, ebullient and transformative event. The night we went to see this production, performed by students at Bath Spa University it was not perfect but it was very good – witty, well-sung, neatly-paced, visually pleasing and extremely entertaining, creating a strong, positive and lasting impression. The cast members take different roles over successive nights of the run, so I can only speak for those we saw at this performance, but having seen a number of them in a version of Purcell’s King Arthur earlier in the year, it was exciting to witness how much they had grown in ability, technique and poise over only eight months.
The performance space at the Michael Tippett Centre is not large. The orchestra has to share the stage with both the set and the performers, naturally placing a number of constraints upon the production. Chief among these is room available for the set itself. Here simplicity is not only a virtue but also a necessity. For The Flute the performance space was on an open white rectangular apron with a white wall behind cut by a large black archway. Above was a white balcony which was accessed from the side by a white spiral staircase. Behind the orchestra stood a striking, angular and desolate white tree which seemed to grasp the air with crooked hands – perhaps reaching out for wisdom and love or grasping in lust. The costumes of those principals who were of a pure, simple or heroic nature flowed on with the white theme, the rest were contrasting in their boldness, with dark blue hues characterising those with darker natures.
So, how about the performers? Let’s get the one everyone asks about out the way first. The Queen of the Night hit all the right notes in all the right places with a pleasing pace and ease. We could enjoy her singing without that niggling worry that she wasn’t going to make it through her arias. She might not have been the best actor, and perhaps her final notes were a smidge hasty, but her voice had operatic potency which she coloured with just enough menace to bring out the nastiness of the ambitious and manipulative mother. She was good, she got a great reaction from the audience, but Papageno was better. Papageno is the role that makes this opera. If you have a weak bird-man then you have a weedy opera. Here was a Papageno who could act and sing and, most impressively, do both together while jumping on a trampoline netting birds. His movements had the jerky freneticism of a redshank stalking the tide line for sand hoppers, his sudden bursts into speech, song or action mirrored the behaviour of a wagtail crossing a car park and whenever he was on stage he was a compelling and energising figure.
This was necessary as Tamino, by contrast, did not seem blessed with such strong acting skills and initially appeared to be rather nervous. However, the clarity and lyricism of his tenor voice convinced and attracted the audience: when he sang like a reflective, philosophical hero he became the flute animating the opera with its magic. Matching Tamino’s vocal clarity was Pamina, lovely of figure – the ideal limpid heroine – and with a purity of voice that was quite captivating. While she hadn’t the operatic power of the Queen, she sang with an understated elegance that focussed the whole auditorium on her every note and drew out both the vulnerability of her character as the imprisoned princess and also the robustness of her nature as a woman prepared to resist Monostatsos, engender courage in Papageno and stand with Tamino as he undergoes cultic trials. Her diction was clear, her acting was attentive and she convinced as a heroine longing for romance, longing for freedom but not quite at ease in a world where certainties, such as her mother’s love, could be exposed as unreliable.
Support from the secondary roles was exemplary: Monostatos was a tenor with attitude and great physical presence, dastardly and buffoonish in equal measure; Sarastro was stately and lucid, ably abetted by a trio of priests who niftily skewered the pomposity of the faux- masonic rituals with shades of Anglo-Catholic camp archness; the three ladies were beguiling and flirty and not very ladylike while the three child guides were played by three ladies dressed as school boys, complete with catapults, and were Puckish in their mischievousness. The one area of dissonance was the orchestral playing – the overture began so raggedly that we were worried about what we had let ourselves in for – but this was not a bad performance, simply an uneven one, there were times when the music was spot on, illuminating and fresh, and others where it felt as if it was filtered in from another room through faulty cabling. It must be hard to get the level of sound right in such a confined space and during the opening scene I wondered whether we were going to be able to hear the vocal lines over the music, however, everything soon settled into an equilibrium and the quality of the singing was allowed to shine, the music supporting and abetting the action.
Overall this was a great night out – the opera cracked along with passion, commitment, verve, humour and talent, there was some excellent ensemble work, it felt as if everyone was working together as a team and the whole production was thoroughly enjoyable and memorable for all the right reasons.