Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Magic Flute @ Barbican Hall, London

26 July 2007

The Barbican’s staging of The Magic Flute never quite cracked Mozart’s valedictory masterpiece. In particular, I found Thomas Guthrie’s purportedly comic treatment of a Barbican ice-cream vendor (I think it was Papagena in disguise, but I can’t be sure) intrusive and awkwardly unfunny. But the show perhaps would have been more communicative and magical in a smaller, more personal hall.

Not that The Magic Flute is easy to bring off: the Singspiel form can seem sporadic unless each performer acts as well as they sing. And Mozart’s wide-ranging stylistic palette (the Queen of the Night could have stepped from a Handel opera seria; the glowing, transcendental music given to Tamino and Pamina as they complete their spiritual journey looks forward to the Beethoven of Fidelio and further) can confuse the ear.

The production itself, directed by Guthrie and designed by Roger Butlin was simple and workable. A round wooden platform housed the action; cut outs of woodland scenery and cardboard animals provided the necessary atmosphere whilst predicting that this would be a childlike, pantomimic interpretation of the work. Children played a large part in the dramatics and visuals, carrying the serpent, acting the animals and transforming into fire and water by way of suggestive hand gestures. They were one of the best things onstage.

It was the adult casting that was odd. Ronald Nairne could have sung like a God, but his lanky, androgynous figure and youthful features made him a less than ideal Sarastro. And while Jacquelyn Parker made a fair stab at the Queen of the Night’s coloratura, I missed an icy chill and a towering, persuasive charisma to match the vocal acrobatics. Mark Wilde has a sincere and beautiful tenor, and his Tamino was lyrical and subtle, if a tad unheroic. And Thomas Guthrie was not at his vocal best as Papageno – his throat struggled to emit a smooth sound and his baritone lacked resonance.

Perhaps the one shining light was Elin Manahan Thomas, who invested great strength and personality into the character of Pamina, and sang the sublime Act Two aria with luminous, golden tone and glorious legato. But it was up to the Orchestra of the Baroque and conductor Christopher Monks to provide fireworks, and though the playing was warm and efficient, the band’s awkward positioning at the side of the platform resulted in a couple of slips of ensemble. And they were continually submerged in dry ice, wafting across the platform. How absurd.

Before the concert, the choral group Chantage performed a thoughtful programme in the Barbican foyer. I sang Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho in Germany last year, and this quirky, exuberant performance brought back many wonderful memories.

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The Magic Flute @ Barbican Hall, London