Thursday, 15 March 2012

Die Zauberflöte, Royal Academy of Music, 14 March 2012

Tamino (Thomas Elwin) and the Queen of the Night
(Anna Gorbachyova)
Images: Hana Zushi, Royal Academy of Music
Sir Jack Lyons Theatre

Tamino – Thomas Elwin
Papageno – Ross Ramgobin
Queen of the Night – Anna Gorbachyova
Monostatos – Ross Scanlon
Pamina – Sónia Grané
Speaker – Gareth John
Sarastro – David Shipley
Papagena – Jennifer France
Two Armoured Men – Stuart Jackson and Nicholas Crawley
Three Ladies – Sara Lian Owen, Katie Bray, Kathryn Walker
Three Boys – Lydia Stables, William Coulter, Caroline Loane
Three Slaves – Bradley Smith, Joseph Thompson, Dominic Kraemer



Stephen Barlow (director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
David Howe (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

One of the principal joys of visiting Royal Academy Opera is to witness young singers at the beginning of their careers stretching themselves, taking on roles that elsewhere they would most likely have to wait quite some time to play, in a supportive yet professional environment. This Magic Flute was no exception. It is not the time for odious comparisons: one does not expect a Wunderlich or a Fischer-Dieskau here. But each of the principals in this ‘second cast’ – implying nothing concerning quality, merely reflecting opportunities afforded to two different casts – had something to offer, though every voice will doubtless develop in expected and unexpected ways in the years to come.




The 'Three Children' (Lydia Stables, William Coulter, Caroline Loane)

Thomas Elwin’s Tamino, for instance, offered in many respects a heartfelt response to what is surely Mozart’s most beautiful tenor role. It was a pity that he did not take greater advantage of the size of the small Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, for there was no need to force his voice as sometimes he did, but he is doubtless accustomed also to singing in larger halls and theatres. Ross Ramgobin made an engaging Papageno, the comic elevated over the very real pathos with which Mozart endows his bird-man, yet Ramgobin showed himself undoubtedly blessed with the gift of stage presence. Sónia Grané was in many respects the most impressive of the singers, though I sometimes felt she was miscast as Pamina, offering a more nineteenth-century emotive (Italianate?) approach than the purity that I at least associate with the role. David Shipley revealed an impressive bass as Sarastro, with Ross Scanlon a camp foil as Monastatos. Papagena has relatively little to sing, but still made an arresting, vivacious impression thanks to Jennifer France. And though she did not make every note, Anna Gorbachyova performed more than creditably as the Queen of the Night. The Three Ladies – why, in the programme, ‘Three Women’? – and most smaller parts were well taken, though the experiment in offering ‘Three Children’, two of them girls, does not seem worth repeating. Gender equality, I suppose, though in which case why not have a counter-tenor as one of the ‘Three Adults’? More seriously, even though one rarely gets to hear treble singing of the quality one expects from Vienna or Tölz – except, of course, when one is hearing Vienna or Tölz – the timbre is so crucial to our understanding and surely also to Mozart’s conception that Three Boys really must be sung by three boys. (Even venerable recordings from the past often fall down in enlisting women’s voices, but this seems an especially unnecessary compromise.) Tuning was often alarmingly awry.

Choral singing was impressive, not least during the second act, when the connections with other of Mozart’s Masonic works became especially apparent. Jane Glover led the Royal Academy Sinfonia with tempi to which it would be difficult to take exception, and if that sounds like faint praise, I should register gratitude in an age when turning Mozart into a freak-show has become more or less the tragic norm. There were a few rough edges to the orchestral playing, but only a few, and Mozart’s music, one should remember, is the most difficult of all to play well. Thank goodness, then, that there were no overt concessions on offer to the ‘authenticke’ brigade.


Papagena (Jennifer France) and Papageno (Ross Ramgobin)

Glover writes – diplomatically? – of having ‘engaged a vibrant production team led by Stephen Barlow, whose ingenious contemporary concept is of great insight, great detail and great fun’. Well, ‘vibrant’ is certainly one way of putting it, even at a stretch ‘ingenious’. However, I am afraid for me, though not, it would seem for much of the chortling – when it was not inappropriately applauding – audience, it sells The Magic Flute terribly short. We find ourselves immersed in a sketch of 1980s - or is it 1970s? - popular culture. Opening in a nightclub, Tamino escapes some form of at least sexual molestation – that is the non-existent monster – and progresses (?) to join a cult that suggests Scientology, or perhaps the Mormons. Were this intended as a critique of Enlightenment instrumental reason, Adorno and Horkheimer to hand, it might have been fascinating. But no, it merely seems to bespeak an inability to take this most extraordinary of operas remotely seriously. The trials Tamino and Pamina must undergo seem merely to entail walking into a sauna and out of a steam room; towels are to hand. Everything is a bit, or rather far too much, of a joke, and the celebratory mass wedding at the end is not undercut: are we supposed to consider initiation into a cult a good thing? Even what might have been a nice touch in having the Queen of the Night reveal herself, not unlike a character from Dallas, as the curtain drops, fails in that it is difficult, given what has gone before, to know what to make of it: less undercutting, more a silly final surprise. Goodness knows why she is first revealed to us as editor of a celebrity magazine. Instead of a flute we have a ghettoblaster – around which the ‘Three Children’ crowd during the Overture – and instead of Papageno’s pipes a mini-electronic-keyboard. Pamina seems to be auditioning for a role as Bonnie Langford, whilst Papageno is a photographer, presumably for the magazine. Monostatos and company are security guards, who occasionally like to glance at a copy of Playboy. On Barlow’s terms, however, Yannis Thavoris’s designs are accomplished; he certainly has to a tee the ghastly white short-sleeved shirt look beloved of creepy American (pseudo-)religious organisations. What a pity, then, that Barlow gives the impression of never having listened to Mozart’s score; its unearthly beauty, its unutterable dignity, should suggest to him something quite different from what he inflicts upon it. I find it difficult to imagine that that great Mozartian, Sir Colin Davis, International Chair of Conducting and Orchestral Studies, would have thought much of what we saw.


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