first night

The Magic Flute

Carrie Gaunt enjoys her introduction to the Durham opera scene


It was with some trepidation that I made my way Castle-wards last night. Shocking though it may be to the cultural purists, I am not an opera fan. I find operas dull, long-winded and, that most favourite of cultural buzzwords, inaccessible. Mozart's Magic Flute, then, staged by the Durham University Opera Ensemble, was a wonderful reintroduction to the genre, given that DOE themselves (according to President Ben Craw) have been focussed on increasing the accessibility of their work, and that Mozart at the time of writing intended The Magic Flute to be more universally appreciated than other classical works. And by and large, DOE have pulled off a stunning performance, effervescent and energetic with absolutely flawless musicality.

I can't comment on the technical intricacies of the singing, but I can say that it sounded absolutely outstanding and please do not think this is intended as a brush-off - I don't think I have ever witnessed such a musically gifted performance. Ella Phillps' hotly anticipated Queen of the Night Aria was just stunning. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is to provide a characterful, vibrant performance at the same time as reaching notes in sequences which seem, frankly, a little bit obscene, but Phillips' does both flawlessly. Audibility and enunciation are something, which I can critique with a little more kudos but here again I was pleasantly surprised. The Magic Flute is best described as convoluted, and I had expected to spend a substantial part of the performance hunched over the synopsis in my programme. But the cast carries the narrative thread of the opera skillfully, barring a few minor lapses where I had to strain to hear what was going on. This is no mean feat in the Great Hall, whose notoriously problematic acoustics at no point seemed to hinder the cast.

Director Anna Bailey has done an excellent job in bringing out the playfulness inherent in The Magic Flute and her touches have created a performance which is notable for its acting, as well as its musical, content. The female cast members are outstanding - Emily Burnett's 2nd Lady is as delightfully provocative as Charlotte la Thrope's Pamina is girlish and naive. Sophia Smith-Galer's Papagena is just wonderful to watch: her performance as Papagena's elderly alter-ego, complete with quivering voice and shaky steps, is hilarious and she matches Ben Craw's Papageno beautifully. Craw himself delivers the standout performance of the night as the lovable clown Papageno, playing to the audience with aplomb and exploiting the comedy in his scenes skillfully. An unorthodox performance, yes - I'm not sure that 'not so fast, sugar tits' would quite meet with Mozart's approval - but a very well pitched one.

To my mind, this performance has two main flaws. The first is that certain cast members seem much happier just standing still and singing - which is fine in its proper context, but in an opera performance seems a little flat and lifeless. Hugo Hymas' movements around the stage seem uncomfortable and forced. Tamino is a character who can be forceful and passionate and Hymas doesn't explore this sufficiently. The second is Bailey's decision to update the performance to immediately post-war London, which only really seemed to impact on the aesthetics of the production rather than have any real parallels with the story itself. The modernisation ended up feeling a little gratuitous given that the only pointers of it for much of the performance were the reproduction wartime posters strewn around the stage. This is not an instance where I would have liked to have seen more commitment to the concept of modernisation - rather, I think Bailey and her team would have been better rejecting the idea altogether and concentrating on letting the old-world charm of the opera shine through.

Nevertheless, despite these minor hiccups, DOE's The Magic Flute is a sumptuous production, boasting energetic performers and note-perfect singing and musical accompaniment. I can't think of a better reintroduction / introduction to opera - long winded it may be, but dull and inaccessible? Not a chance. 

13 February 2014

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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