Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Magic Flute review – Nevill Holt Festival’s 2024 season opens with Mozart’s final opera

1 - 9 June 2024

An innovative and thought provoking production in the Leicestershire countryside.

The Magic Flute

Archie White, Jonathan Eyers, Saskia Faye-Larcombe & Thea Kallhed Möller (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Melly Still has directed Rusalka and The Wreckers at Glyndebourne, and now comes to Leicestershire to present The Magic Flute for Nevill Holt Festival. Still’s starting point is the idea that, while masonic philosophy involves flattening social hierarchies, in 1791 when the opera premiered it was simply not offering equality to vast swathes of the population. She explores the notion considerably, however, by suggesting that even those characters who supposedly enjoy the ‘light’, still find themselves enslaved, whether it be by religious ideology or notions of the masculine and feminine. 

Seating around 500 people, Nevill Holt’s theatre is small, and while that is the key to its charm, its size will always affect what can be presented in terms of sets and stage effects. By working from her strong premise, however, Still overcomes any constraints to create a highly effective production that has a lot to say.

The set comprises several rows of hanging strings, which allude to the confusing and ‘labyrinthine’ realm of Sarastro, while also hinting at prison bars and thus entrapment. The set-up also enables different spaces to be suggested as the strings can be drawn aside or clumped inside large pots on the ground. During the Overture we peer through the rows to see Sarastro’s men abduct Pamina, and it is interesting to see the titles of the books that she and her mother read. The largest word on the Queen of the Night’s is ‘Stoic’ while on Pamina’s it is ‘Woman’. This suggests that the Queen is searching for a way into Sarastro’s world, but conversely raising her daughter in her own image. 

The manner in which various characters are trapped is revealed in a number of ways. Monostatos places a birdcage on Pamina’s head, and she wears a hooped crinoline that mirrors its shape. The production has quite a mystical quality as the Ladies wave feathers as they introduce the three Boys, referred to here as Genii, as if conjuring them into existence. At the end of their first appearance they seem to disappear in the blink of an eye leaving Tamino holding a feather. All this is achieved with quite basic props. A slide is brought on when the Genii lead Tamino towards Sarastro’s Temple, with the act of sliding down it suggesting the transition from one realm to another. 

Pamina’s portrait is represented by an empty picture frame, behind which she stands for part of ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’. When Papageno sees Monostatos they stare at each other through this frame, and after the latter flees the bird catcher steps through it to signify him entering the same room as Pamina. There are a few jokes along the way, with this room only being marked out by a ring of sand on the floor. Thus, when Pamina and Papageno try to work out how to flee it, the latter’s solution is to demolish its ‘walls’ by getting a Hoover out! 

“…Still overcomes any constraints to create a highly effective production…”

The Magic Flute

Archie White, Martins Smaukstelis, Thea Kallhed Möller & Olivia Warburton (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Three dancers (Archie White, Saskia Faye Larcombe and Thea Kallhed Möller) play many roles, including the slaves under Monostatos and the animals enchanted by Tamino’s flute, and they bring much dynamism to the evening. They are particularly successful at portraying birds, and Papageno enters for ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’ pulling two of them who have been captured and had hooped crinolines placed around their necks. He tries to seize the third during the aria, who responds to his pipe playing with bird like twitching and strutting. They also bring the house down towards the end when they bounce around as Papageno and Papagena’s babies. 

The production features no separate chorus as all of the principals sing the chorus parts, often from the back of the stage. When doing so they sometimes wear wide rimmed hats, from which strings hang down, to obscure their identity as soloists. The Speaker of the Temple is splendidly sung by Malachy Frame, while he and Magnus Walker also play the two Priests and Armed Men. When Papageno ‘charms’ Monostatos (a persuasive Simon Sumal) and the slaves with his bells, Sumal, Frame and Walker sing while the dancers provide the movement. This does, however, represent one misstep. The humour normally derives from seeing a male chorus having to dance at all, let alone in a style that is completely ‘wrong’ for such hard characters. Here, the dancers are so accomplished that there is nothing to laugh at in their performance, and more might have been achieved by giving them steps that were positively amusing in their own right.

The singing is in the original German, but the dialogue is delivered in English using contemporary language. The explanations it provides as to what is happening are very clear, meaning this production should be highly accessible to those unfamiliar with the opera. By the same token, there are some moments in Act II when the earthiness of the language, coupled with the repetition of certain techniques for ‘doubling up’ on characters, make the staging feel a little pedestrian, but it does pick up again before the end. The journeys through fire and water are rendered effectively, as Tamino and Pamina risk their feet by walking on fire and their heads by having transparent buckets full of water placed over them. Tamino also undergoes a journey through a third element as he is buried in earth as the Armed Men sing. 

Finnegan Downie Dear, the 2020 winner of the Bamberger Symphoniker’s International Mahler Competition, conducts the Britten Sinfonia extremely well, applying a lightness of touch that feels particularly suited to this small venue, while still achieving a strong sense of forward momentum. There is some fine solo flute work from Thomas Hancox, who the audience can see standing in the pit whenever he portrays Tamino playing. With his sensitive tenor, Martins Smaukstelis feels quite a deep and thinking Tamino, while Jonathan Eyers, with his effective baritone, is an entertaining Papageno. Olivia Warburton is an extremely accomplished Pamina, with her sweet, clean and soaring sound being supported by many nuances in her soprano. 

The sheer strength of Nazan Fikret’s soprano, coupled with the precision in her phrasing and some excellent coloratura in ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’, make her a formidable Queen of the Night. The three Ladies (Isabelle Peters, Aina Miyagi Magnell and Angharad Lyddon) are also superb, with the extent to which they are taken by Tamino’s handsomeness actually revealing much about their own allure. Jasmine Flicker is an engaging Papagena, and it is a nice touch for Papageno’s bells to be represented by a music box that features a miniature Papagena as a spinning ballerina. The three Genii, who over the run are played by Zeenat Anifowoshe, Edith Bhamra, Freddie Lusted, Natalia Markowska, Archie Ross and Sofia Picker, also deliver a highly pleasing sound.

With his firm bass, Allen Michael Jones is a convincing Sarastro, and he very much suggests that the character is not free himself as he is a slave to his responsibilities. It is very easy to feel in this production that Sarastro kidnapped Pamina believing he would marry her himself, so that it is with a sense of personal loss that he accepts the union of her and Tamino as being the right one. This production does not go as far as Barbe & Doucet’s for Glyndebourne in seeing the Queen of the Night entirely embraced at the end, with Sarastro changed as much as she is. She is certainly not cast out, however, and encourages Sarastro to release himself just a little from the shackles of his duty. Sarastro may not be entirely persuaded, but a final gesture does see him literally ‘dip one toe in the water’.

• Nevill Holt Festival’s 2024 season continues until 26 June. For details of all events and tickets visit its website.

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The Magic Flute review – Nevill Holt Festival’s 2024 season opens with Mozart’s final opera